Going for broke
Applications for patents have been rocketing. Under the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) Patent Co-operation Treaty companies can file a single patent application which would be valid in many countries. Each such patent has the power of scores of individual patents.
However, patents granted in individual countries are more numerous. And the US Patent and Trademark Office leads the world.
By means fair or foul
The life of a patent is 20 years, giving its owner monopoly rights to exploit it. But corporations often hang on to their monopolies for longer by introducing minor changes to the product and then claiming a new patent. This practice is especially prevalent for medicines. Another ruse is to couch the patent application in obscure terms making it difficult for the regulatory bodies to judge the innovatory aspect. Or to attempt to overwhelm them with information – in 2000, WIPO received over 30 applications that were over 1,000 pages long. Several reached 140,000 pages.2
There’s a race to claim human genetic material, with companies and universities filing patents. By November 2000, there were 9,364 applications covering 126,672 genes and small sub-gene fragments. Applications were growing at the rate of 34,500 every month. Just one company, Genset of France, had applied for patents on 36,083 human gene sequences.5 Today the number of patents on human genetic material may be as high as 4 million.6
In November 2000 there were:
- 152 applications on rice
- 13 on eucalyptus
- 21 on HIV
- 1,331 on mice
- 501 on chickens
- 11 on spiders
- 10 on fish5
Biotechnology investments are soaring world-wide, fuelling the race for patents.
- The US, the European Union, India and Australia are the major players. But the US dwarfs even its closest competitors.
- Revenues of just one US biotech giant – Amgen – are almost equal to the entire European biotech sector.8
- There were 1,457 biotechnology companies in the US with a total value of $224 billion by May 2002. The industry has tripled in size since 1992.4
- In the US medical applications of biotechnology account for more than 90% of annual sales and agricultural products for 5%.
A few giant corporations have grabbed the lion’s share of the patents pie. In November 2000:
- Genset (France) had 28.5% of patent applications relating to human genes
- Dow (US) had 30.3% on maize gene sequences
- Ribozyme (US) had 71.7% on potatoes + DuPont (US) had 40.6% on wheat.5
Mergers and take-overs are the norm, concentrating corporate power.
Developing countries are under-represented in international negotiations.
Even assuming it were desirable to do so, indigenous and local communities, who are the custodians of biodiversity, cannot compete in the patenting arena. The costs are too high:
- around $20,000 for patent preparation
- $1,000 per language translation
- up to $5,000 for annual maintenance fees
- $250,000 (or more) if the patent is legally challenged.7
Monitoring patents worldwide is a mammoth task and challenging biopiracy obscenely expensive. Recently the Government of India challenged patents on rice in the US law courts and won.
The area devoted to genetically modified (GM) crops has increased more than 30-fold between 1996 and 2001, from 1.7 million hectares to 52.6.
- 91% of the total world area under commercial – and patented – GM crops was supplied by Monsanto (US).
Soy beans are the leading GM crop – 46% of the total land under soy beans grows GM varieties.
Biotechnology companies are forming alliances with the pharmaceutical giants hoping to ‘bottle money’, as Fortune magazine put it. Gene therapy is the holy grail, with companies pinning their hopes on astronomical future profits.
- The University of Chicago estimated the value of reducing deaths from cancer in the US at $46.5 trillion.9
- In 2000, 9 of the top 10 biotech companies manufactured medicines.10
- In the US, 70% of biotech medicines were approved in the last six years.4 Four biotech drugs bring in $1 billion annually.8
- In 1999, plant-based drugs had global sales of over $40 billion a year. The rewards for patenting plant material are evident.1
- UNDP, Human Development Report 1999 (Oxford University Press 1999).
- UNDP, Human Development Report 2001 (Oxford University Press 2001).
- ‘IP/STAT/1999/B’ available at [http://www.wipo.org]
- Biotechnology Industry Organization, [http://www.bio.org/er/statistics.asp], accessed on 5 July 2002.
- ‘Patenting life: special report’, The Guardian, 15 November 2000 with research by GeneWatch UK.
- Human Genetics Alert ([http://www.hgalert.org]), ‘Why Should I be Concerned About Human Genetics?’.
- GAIA and GRAIN, ‘Biodiversity for Sale’, Global Trade and Biodiversity in Conflict series, No 4, April 2000.
- Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2002 (WW Norton & Company 2002).
- Andrew Clark, ‘How biotech firms became trapped in a battle of good and evil’, The Guardian, 15 November 2000.
- ETC Group Communique No 71, ‘Globalization, Inc.’, July/August2001, [http://www.etcgroup.org]
- ETC Group, ‘Ag Biotech Countdown: Vital Statistics and GM Crops, Update – June, 2002’, [http://www.etc.group.org/article.asp?newsid=342]
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