Patents / FACTS
Patents have made collective resources – plants, animal varieties,
our very genes – the property of private companies.
*Industrial countries own 97% of the world’s patents – but it’s the
developing countries that account for 90% of the world’s biological
resources on which many of the patents depend.1
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
152 applications on rice
13 on eucalyptus
21 on hiv
1,331 on mice
501 on chickens
11 on spiders
10 on fish5
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.
UNDP, Human Development Report 1999 (Oxford University Press 1999).
UNDP, Human Development Report 2001 (Oxford University Press 2001).
‘IP/STAT/1999/B’ available at www.wipo.org
Biotechnology Industry Organization, 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 (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, www.etcgroup.org
ETC Group, ‘Ag Biotech Countdown: Vital Statistics and GM Crops, Update – June, 2002’, www.etc.group.org/article.asp?newsid=342