Interview: Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes

Surely you own your own genes, don’t you? Think again. Presently, more than one-fifth of the human genome is fully patented. Corporations and universities now own the exclusive rights to many precious parts of you. We spoke to David R. Koepsell, author of Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes about what led him to write about the realities and implications of gene patenting.

Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write Who Owns You?

David Koepsell: One of my major research topics over the years has been the philosophical aspects of intellectual property. My first book, The Ontology of Cyberspace (Open Court 2000) explored the nature of IP in computerized media. I had been doing some reading on the Human Genome Project and was astounded to learn that genes had begun to be patented during the HGP, and well afterwards. I proposed to do a fellowship at the Yale Bioethics Center. My proposal was accepted, and I spent a year at Yale researching and writing about gene ownership, coming to the conclusion that a great injustice was occurring as a result of gene patents.

PE: What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?

DK: I examine the ethical implications of allowing patents on genes. Specifically, I look into the question of whether unmodified genes (as opposed to engineered genes) are ever human creations. I conclude that they are not, that they are products of nature, and thus the patent offices that have been granting patents on things like the BRCA1 and 2 genes (whose presence suggests an increased risk of breast cancer) are allowing patents on products of nature. This is important legally, because ordinarily products of nature are not eligible for patents, and ethically as I argue that natural products and laws are part of what I call a “commons by necessity” which cannot ethically be enclosed. I elaborate a theory of property and the commons that is somewhat unique, and that forms the basis of my ethical conclusion.

PE: And what is it that draws you (personally) to this topic?

DK: I have long felt, since first exploring issues related to intellectual property, that IP regimes are not necessarily the best means of promoting innovation. A governmentally-granted monopoly is generally not economically efficient, it skews markets without regard to the true value of a technology, and it can inhibit fair competition and future innovation. Biotech in particular is proving to be a minefield of competing patents, increasing the costs associated with new drugs and therapies, and without any clear evidence that patents are even necessary to promote basic research or commercialization. No research has ever proven that IP is necessary for innovation in the first place. Recently, economists Michele Boldrin and David Levine made an excellent case that IP is anti-innovative in their book Against Intellectual Monopoly. I think they’re spot-on.

PE: What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?

DK: I hope that citizens will become aware and start to support the various legislative efforts now underway around the world to end gene patenting. In the U.S. and abroad, gene patents are becoming an issue that more people are paying attention to, and trying to stop. I hope this book helps spur those efforts and adds arguments to the debate.

PE: What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?

DK: I wanted to bring this topic to both laypersons and experts in an engaging way that would provoke discussion and action. I thus tried to write in a straightforward style, eschewing my academic tendencies (like those that cause me to say “eschewing”), and to discuss both the science and ethics as though the reader had no particular background in either. I’ve been pleased to hear people with various backgrounds react positively to the style of the book, as well as the subject matter. They generally say it’s accessible and easy to read.

PE: Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?

DK: Besides Ulysses? Yes, Luigi Palombi wrote a book called Gene Cartels, which came out a few months after mine. It makes the definitive legal case against gene patents, and makes an excellent companion to my ethical case against them. We have since become colleagues in our efforts to eradicate the practice of patenting genes, and have had the opportunity to speak and meet last Spring in New York City, just as the ACLU was beginning its lawsuit against Myriad, the company that owns the BRCA1 and 2 gene patents.

PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?

DK: I am finalizing a trilogy of sorts, writing now about Intellectual Property and Nanotechnology. The book is called Innovation and Nanotechnology: Converging Technologies and the End of IP. Bloomsbury Academic will publish it in 2011. I’m excited to learn about nanotech, and I choose topics that satisfy my inner geek.

PE: Why should ordinary people care about gene patents?

DK: 20% of the human genome now is patented. People with propensities for certain, monogenic diseases are being forced to pay prices far exceeding the costs of these tests. The $1000 whole genome scan is just a few years away, but existing gene patents will mean that those portions of your genome that are currently patented will have to be blocked out, and you cannot know about them, unless you pay additional fees to the patent holders. The full value of great new technologies will be blocked for us all.

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