Monday, March 10, 2008

Biopiracy and Agnostic Judges

FIRST INCIDENT OF BIOPIRACY Viking Press has come out with a book "The Thief and the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire", by Joe Jackson, about of Englishman Henry Wickham, who, during the Victorian era, explored the Amazon in search of rubber trees that he had heard about that produced a strong and durable rubber. Having found the trees, he smuggled thousands of the seeds back to England, thus launching a rubber financial boom in the UK (though Wickham himself never profited much financially). Other foodstuffs that have been pirated are turmeric, quinoa and Basmati rice. Regarding Basmati, in September 1997, a Texas company called RiceTec won a patent (U.S. Patent No. 5,663,484) on basmati rice lines and grains. The patent secures lines of basmati and basmati-like rice and ways of analyzing that rice. RiceTec, owned by Prince Hans-Adam of Liechtenstein, faced international outrage over allegations of biopiracy. Both voluntarily and due to review decisions by the United States Patent Office, RiceTec has lost most of the claims of the patent, including, most importantly, the right to call their rice lines "basmati." This was a significant victory for India, whose farmers faced enormous economic losses that would have been caused by the patent.

In patent law, one common misunderstanding is that pharmaceutical companies patent the plants they collect. Consider also that it is impossible to patent naturally occurring organisms. However, patents may be taken out on specific chemicals isolated or developed from plants, often in combination with a stated and researched use of those chemicals. Generally the existence, structure and synthesis of those compounds is not a part of the indigenous medical knowledge that led researchers to analyze the plant in the first place. As a result, even if the indigenous medical knowledge is taken as prior art, that knowledge does not by itself make the active chemical compound "obvious," which is the standard applied under patent law.

In the United States, patent law can be used to protect "isolated and purified" compounds. In 1873, Louis Pasteur patented a "yeast" which was "free from disease" (US Patent No. 141,072). Patents covering biological inventions have been treated similarly. In the 1980, the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, the Supreme Court upheld a patent on a bacterium that had been genetically modified to consume petroleum, reasoning that U.S. law permits patents on "anything under the sun that is made by man." The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has observed that "a patent on a gene covers the isolated and purified gene but does not cover the gene as it occurs in nature".

Also possible under U.S. law is to patent a cultivar, a new variety of an existing organism. The patent on the Enola bean is an example of this sort of patent. The intellectual property laws of the US also recognize plant breeders' rights under the Plant Variety Protection Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2321-2582.

AMERICANS MIGHT NEED AN AGNOSTIC SUPREME COURT JUDGE Since the Supreme Court is also representative of American thought, it appears as having too many men, and too many white people (and thus too many white men). A recent Pew religious survey of America found that 16% of Americans are not religious. They are agnostic, atheist. That means one out of six Americans, and slowly rising. Since there are nine Supreme Court judges, that might call for one Justice being not religious. Food for thought, or for an AM radio talk show.

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