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The Role of Intellectual Property Rights in Biotechnology Innovation

Edited by David Castle

Intellectual property rights (IPRs), particularly patents, occupy a prominent position in innovation systems, but to what extent they support or hinder innovation is widely disputed. Through the lens of biotechnology, this book delves deeply into the main issues at the crossroads of innovation and IPRs to evaluate claims of the positive and negative impacts of IPRs on innovation.
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Chapter 11: On the Border: Biotechnology, the Scope of Intellectual Property and the Dissemination of Scientific Benefits

Christopher May


Christopher May Many commentators want to discuss the intersection of biotechnology and patents (or intellectual property more generally) as if this was a novel problem, requiring new solutions, and a new politics. However, as the politics of intellectual property has always been about making property from new techniques and knowledge (intellectual property almost by definition is the commodification1 of innovation), this claim for historical novelty is far from conclusive. In this chapter I will suggest there are two responses that can be made to the argument that biotechnology requires a reformation of the patent system; first we can examine the possibilities for incremental ‘problem solving’ – reworking and renegotiating how the system deals with biotechnology ‘innovations’; second, it can be taken as a question regarding the general scope of intellectual property itself. The latter argument suggests that this is a category, or border, problem; biotechnology is erroneously included in the system of patents, and many of the political, ethical and practical issues might be solved by establishing that biotechnological ‘products’ and techniques should not be subject to patent at all. Thus, rather than a question about how patents might better support innovation, another way through the current disputes over biotech patents would be firmly to (re)establish patent criteria to exclude biotechnological tools and bio-medical materials/products altogether. Certainly, in many ways biotechnology is not a revolutionary technology; rather, it builds on centuries of husbandry, the accumulation of (traditional) knowledge about the manner in which the ‘building blocks’ of nature work together....

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