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What is an embryo?
May 1, 2011 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Art. 6(2)(c) of Directive 98/44/EC, passed by the EU Parliament and Council back in 1998, ruled that, among other things, "uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes" were to be considered unpatentable because of their being contrary to "ordre public" or morality. After German researcher Prof. Dr. Oliver Bruestle was granted a patent concerning a method for creating nerve precursor cells on the basis of embryonic stem cells, Greenpeace Germany (in German) filed a lawsuit for annulment of the patent. The German Federal Court of Justice then referred to the European Court of Justice the question of whether embryonic stem cell therapy constitutes such a use of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes, under Directive 98/44/EC.

In a preliminary, non-binding opinion, the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice proposes that the Court rules that an invention must be excluded from patentability where the application of the technical process for which the patent is filed "necessitates the prior destruction of human embryos or their use as base material, even if the description of that process does not contain any reference to the use of human embryos". While the opinions of the Advocate General are not binding on the Court, they are followed in 80% of cases. A group of leading scientists has expressed its dismay at the Advocate General's opinion in an open letter. This has received major media coverage.

While these opponents concentrate on the impact of the ruling on the burgeoning European (and especially British) biotech industry, and on the danger of officially labelling embryonic stem cell therapies as "immoral", the nub of the Advocate General's opinion hinges on the not-so-straightforward question: "what is an embryo"?
posted by Skeptic (45 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sadly, the debate is being distorted, who are often just following an anti-Europe agenda. Here's one example from the Daily Telegraph. The author places the court in Brussels, where it is in Luxembourg.
posted by quarsan at 9:26 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


quarsan I'm afraid that both sides are guilty of distorsion. The stem cell debate is all-too-often presented in terms of "cute foetuses" vs. "courageous people in wheelchairs". And it is quite shocking to see Greenpeace Germany use the same foetus imagery as hardcore anti-abortion activists. On the other hand, the British press coverage is suspiciously unanimous: not only the usual suspects, like the Torygraph and the Daily Fail, are using the same old anti-European clichés. Even the Guardian and the solidly pro-EU Independent are attacking the Advocate General's opinion without much consideration of its substance and legal basis and centering rather on the Advocate General's nationality (French) and purported political allegiance (conservative). But then, there's much too much money at stake for this not to be the result of an organised PR campaign.
posted by Skeptic at 10:02 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am opposed to the Directive and the Advocate General's opinion, because the use of unthinking bundles of cells to produce cures for living people is not immoral, it is moral. As long as the embryos are prevented from developing, it should be treated as any other area of medical research.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:13 AM on May 1, 2011


Underlining the court's decision seems to be an intent to keep the use of 'embryonic' cells from being profitable thus conveying the idea that research for profit will have results less positive for the public at large than 'pure' science. It's kind of any interesting piece of legal jiu-jitsu if it works. I applaud it.
posted by From Bklyn at 10:13 AM on May 1, 2011


I'm fine with embryonic stem cells, but I'm not really a fan of patents. So, frankly, I don't really see why I should care one way or the other about this? It isn't like there isn't plenty of government funding for science and research without the need for patent monopolies.
posted by delmoi at 10:17 AM on May 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


delmoi You appear to overlook that the ECJ may ban patents on embryonic stem cell processes on moral grounds. And the strange (from an American or British viewpoint) Green-Christian coalition pushing for this ban has already obtained an almost-absolute ban on embryonic stem cell research in Germany. The scientists opposing the Advocate General's opinion are understandably afraid that, if embryonic stem cell use (and not just patents thereon) is officially labelled as "immoral" by the ECJ, this isn't going to help them obtain public funding either...and yet, the Advocate General can hardly be accused of judicial activism in this case, considering the letter of the law.
posted by Skeptic at 10:49 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


On one side of the scale you have the millions of lives that might save with stem cell treatments, and on the other side of the scale you have...what? How does pursuing stem cell research damage the world or even negatively affect a single person?

As for patents, you need them if you want to maintain any private innovation. At least in pharmaceuticals, the majority of research dollars is private. With the push towards economic austerity, we need patents even more as the government cuts spending.

Some positions of the church and Greenpeace are "anti-technology" rather than anything to do with morality or the environment. If Greenpeace hadn't turned Americans against nuclear energy we might have a much better chance against global warming. Clean electricity for home and transportation.
posted by gyp casino at 11:01 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I see no problem with barring patents on moral grounds. It is entirely reasonable to conclude that we do not wish to use a profit-protecting instrument (patents) as a means of facilitating immoral products and processes.

Of course there ought to be a reasoned discussion about how, in a pluralistic society, we can have a productive, inclusive method of establishing immorality, but that is a separate issue.
posted by oddman at 11:03 AM on May 1, 2011


You see patents as "profit-protecting" I see it as "idea-protecting." Do I have no claim to my own ideas?
posted by gyp casino at 11:12 AM on May 1, 2011


Surely this will push accomplished research and researchers to America, China etc, where they can patent things and make them?

I know nothing about stem cells so wikid, and it says they can be grown, so why use embryonic stem cells if you can just grow them in culture?

This whole issue appears to be a moral minefield for people with strong views either way.
posted by marienbad at 11:16 AM on May 1, 2011


Do I have no claim to my own ideas?

Not if I thought of it first!
posted by ryanrs at 11:17 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do I have no claim to my own ideas?

Are they yours, once we are using them? For the sake of fostering innovation, governments have historically granted temporary monopolies with the understanding that they were a necessary evil. Whether they really did foster innovation or were necessary is debatable, but until recently nobody ever argued that they were anything other than evil.
posted by DU at 11:18 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


As for patents, you need them if you want to maintain any private innovation.

Whatever the pros and cons of patents generally, or any specific patent protection scheme, this is false. Full stop.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:22 AM on May 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


Proof of the "you need patents to generate innovation" claim:

Patent #1: Fire
Patent #2: The wheel
Patent #3: Sabre-tooth skin toga
posted by DU at 11:29 AM on May 1, 2011


If people want to be opposed to patenting of any and all medical methods, then we should have that conversation. Singling-out methods that involve certain clusters of unthinking cells is simply irrational, and is based on religious and anti-technological sentiments.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 11:39 AM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


My favorite proof that you need patents to generate innovation is Jonas Salk particularly when the topic of pharmaceutical research comes up.

Spoiler: he saved millions of lives with no profit motive.
posted by polyhedron at 11:43 AM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think patents are necessary for research carried out in universities, governement labs, or large corporate research facilities. But for small startups, patents are critical in raising funds.

You won't find many investors willing to put money behind a good idea without patent protection. Investors want to know that if they take a risk in supporting an innovative idea, they will be able to profit from it. Without that kind of protection, big corps will just watch from the sidelines until the idea is proven, then use their huge capital advantage to beat you in the market.

I think the US patent system has a lot of problems. But the whole venture capital / small startup dynamic of Silicon Valley is predicated on the sort of protection it offers.
posted by ryanrs at 11:49 AM on May 1, 2011


You see patents as "profit-protecting" I see it as "idea-protecting."

Your ideas are not destroyed or harmed if you cannot patent them. Your ability to profit from them may be diminished. Therefore, "profit-protecting" not "idea-protecting".
posted by hattifattener at 12:30 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


If people want to be opposed to patenting of any and all medical methods, then we should have that conversation.

It must be pointed out that therapeutical and diagnostic methods are indeed unpatentable in Europe, anyway. But this is not what is a stake here. Bruestle's patent is about a method for obtaining nerve precursor cells. While the nerve precursor cells may then be used in a therapeutic method, obtaining the cells is not therapeutic by itself, and is thus not excluded from patentability for that reason. The clause invoked against Bruestle's patent is a common, but rarely used clause which excludes immoral inventions from being patented. While this has not excluded a number of inventions of disputable "morality" from being patented (from more or less lethal weaponry to executioning devices), the European parliament, back in 1998, insisted on explicitly citing, for the first time, several categories of biotech inventions which were to be considered "immoral".
posted by Skeptic at 12:32 PM on May 1, 2011


Do I have no claim to my own ideas?

Are they yours, once we are using them? For the sake of fostering innovation, governments have historically granted temporary monopolies with the understanding that they were a necessary evil. Whether they really did foster innovation or were necessary is debatable, but until recently nobody ever argued that they were anything other than evil.
posted by happyroach at 12:35 PM on May 1, 2011


"Consider the fashion industry, a creative industry larger by far than the film, recorded music and book publishing industries. The logos and labels that adorn apparel and accessories are protected by trademark law. But the designs of the garments themselves - the cut of a sleeve, the fit of a bodice - are not. Copyright law does not cover most fashion designs because clothing is a “useful article”, a class of items that falls in the jurisdiction of patents and not copyrights. But patent law is almost irrelevant to fashion designs, both because the patent standard of “novelty” cannot be met by most designs, and for the practical reason that the patent application process proceeds too slowly to be meaningful for most fashion designs, which live a brief commercial life and then disappear."
posted by oddman at 12:39 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


delmoi You appear to overlook that the ECJ may ban patents on embryonic stem cell processes on moral grounds.
What difference does it make? The effect is the same. It's possible for something to be moral to do, but not to patent. The fact that it's moral to have children does not make it moral to patent human genes.
You see patents as "profit-protecting" I see it as "idea-protecting." Do I have no claim to my own ideas?
Why should you have a claim to "your own" ideas? All ideas are based on other ideas, anyway.
Surely this will push accomplished research and researchers to America, China etc, where they can patent things and make them?
You don't have to do research in country X to get a patent in country X. And anyway, with little funding for embryonic stem cell research in the U.S. it would be hard to find work here, and intellectual property rights are not exactly China's forte.
If people want to be opposed to patenting of any and all medical methods, then we should have that conversation. Singling-out methods that involve certain clusters of unthinking cells is simply irrational
That's like saying, if we want to legalize drugs, then we should legalize them all, singling out marijuana is irrational. In the real world, you take what you can get.
posted by delmoi at 12:57 PM on May 1, 2011


But the whole venture capital / small startup dynamic of Silicon Valley is predicated on the sort of protection it offers.

SYSTEM CREATED IN PRESENCE OF EFFECT EXPLOITS EFFECT, FILM AT 11

If patents ceased existing or were reduced in scope or timescale, people would both still invent things and still be able to make money. The only thing endangered is existing structures "predicated on" gaming the system.
posted by DU at 1:04 PM on May 1, 2011


I'm all for the use of stem cells, embryonic in origin or otherwise, for research and treatment. I think even the absolute most far-out scenario boogeyman that I've seen proposed by its opponents -- that it would result in "embryo-farming," or deliberate creation of embryos in labs in order to produce large numbers of stem cells for use as research -- is a net moral good because it would likely result in broader, faster, and deeper research to heal or increase quality of life to a significant degree for living, breathing, feeling human beings.

I'm not a fan of patents, at least not in the way they are granted and applied today. It has been far too easy to get a patent in a number of fields (notably software and other related technologies), resulting in ridiculous ongoing patent wars. In agriculture, patents have been used to bankrupt smaller farmers (our GM seeds mixed with your crop, therefore we own your crop) and increase the corporate agricopoly.

I understand that the "moral grounds" argument here is troubling, particularly in its implications about access to stem cell lines for research, but I can't help but feel that higher barriers to patents at the least would benefit the other 99% of us much more than granting the patents would.
posted by notashroom at 1:11 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


DU, do you have any actual suggestions on what an alternative system might look like? Because the startup ecosystem in Silicon Valley has created a lot of genuinely useful technology.

(Yelling "film at 11" says to me that you haven't spent much time thinking about the issue.)
posted by ryanrs at 1:30 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


The software side of silicon valley doesn't need patents. There were no software patents during the rise of the PC and even today software patents are only ever used by huge corporations to screw each other over. Copyright is fine for protecting software, and for web based services you don't need any IP protection at all because all your code sits on your own servers.

I can't think of a single silicon valley company that exists because of software patents.

On the other hand, for hardware and chips, there have been lots of patents and probably it worked well. But chips are very similar to the traditional ideas that patents are supposed to protect: various types of hardware.

There's a big difference between that, and things like software patents, bio-tech patents, and things like business model patents.
posted by delmoi at 1:34 PM on May 1, 2011


"I can't think of a single silicon valley company that exists because of software patents. "


I can think of two Interval Licensing and NTP.

Not exactly sterling examples of the good in patents are they?
posted by oddman at 1:49 PM on May 1, 2011


delmoi What difference does it make? The effect is the same. It's possible for something to be moral to do, but not to patent. The fact that it's moral to have children does not make it moral to patent human genes.

Are you being deliberately obtuse, delmoi? The whole point of Directive 98/44/EC was that some things are not patentable because they are immoral to do. To quote its Art. 6 in its entirety:

1. Inventions shall be considered unpatentable where their commercial exploitation would be contrary to ordre public or morality; however, exploitation shall not be deemed to be so contrary merely because it is prohibited by law or regulation.

2. On the basis of paragraph 1, the following, in particular, shall be considered unpatentable:
(a) processes for cloning human beings;
(b) processes for modifying the germ line genetic identity of human beings;
(c) uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes;
(d) processes for modifying the genetic identity of animals which are likely to cause them suffering without any substantial medical benefit to man or animal, and also animals resulting from such processes.


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DU For the sake of fostering innovation, governments have historically granted temporary monopolies with the understanding that they were a necessary evil. Whether they really did foster innovation or were necessary is debatable, but until recently nobody ever argued that they were anything other than evil.

By using the word "evil" you are introducing your own morality here. Patents are neither "good" nor "evil". They just have costs and benefits. The temporary monopoly implies a significant cost to the public, certainly, and the patent system also carries significant administrative costs, both to society in general and to the patentees and their competitors. They also have benefits, not just as incentives to invent, but also, perhaps much more relevantly, to disclose the invention. Whether the benefits outweigh the costs is a matter of debate, but countries with strong patent systems have generally shown significantly higher R&D investment rates, economic and human development than countries with weak patent systems.

----------------------------------------------------------------

oddman Consider the fashion industry

Well, the fashion industry is highly dependent of technological development in fibers, textile machinery and dyes, all technical domains with very high patenting rates. Indeed, the modern fashion industry as we know it wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for the discovery (and patenting) of mauve.

Also, few industries are as dependent of trademarks as the fashion industry. And while it may be true that fashion designs aren't protected by copyright in the US, this is not necessarily true elsewhere, and particularly in Europe, where registered and unregistered designs are a common form of protection. To assert that the fashion industry is "IP-light" reveals a singular level of cluelessness about both the fashion industry and intellectual property.

Mind you, the claim that it is "innovative" is also somewhat debatable. Last time I looked, hipsters were wearing the very same fashions last seen ca. 1985...

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notashroom In agriculture, patents have been used to bankrupt smaller farmers (our GM seeds mixed with your crop, therefore we own your crop) and increase the corporate agricopoly.

I guess you are referring to the Monsanto vs. Schmeiser case in Canada. It is important to note that the Supreme Court of Canada explicitly ruled that Percy Schmeiser was not an "innocent bystander", but actively sought to use Monsanto's GM seeds:

86 Further, the appellants did not provide sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption of use. It may well be that defendant farmers could rebut the presumption by showing that they never intended to cultivate plants containing the patented genes and cells. They might perhaps prove that the continued presence of the patented gene on their land was accidental and unwelcome, for example, by showing that they acted quickly to arrange for its removal, and that its concentration was consistent with that to be expected from unsolicited “blow-by” canola. Knowledge of infringement is never a necessary component of infringement. However, a defendant’s conduct on becoming aware of the presence of the patented invention may assist in rebutting the presumption of use arising from possession.

87 However, the appellants in this case actively cultivated canola containing the patented invention as part of their business operations. Mr. Schmeiser complained that the original plants came onto his land without his intervention. However, he did not at all explain why he sprayed Roundup to isolate the Roundup Ready plants he found on his land; why he then harvested the plants and segregated the seeds, saved them, and kept them for seed; why he next planted them; and why, through this husbandry, he ended up with 1030 acres of Roundup Ready Canola which would otherwise have cost him $15,000. In these circumstances, the presumption of use flowing from possession stands unrebutted.

posted by Skeptic at 2:13 PM on May 1, 2011


DU, do you have any actual suggestions on what an alternative system might look like? Because the startup ecosystem in Silicon Valley has created a lot of genuinely useful technology.

Well, there's the system we had 30-40 years ago. That created some genuinely useful technology you might recognize.

Alternatively, we just have...no system at all. That created the bulk of the technology in the world, which many have found of use.
posted by DU at 2:18 PM on May 1, 2011


countries with strong patent systems have generally shown significantly higher R&D investment rates, economic and human development than countries with weak patent systems.

How old is this information?

Also, it's a bit rich to credit corporate profit from the patent system with the increase in "human development".
posted by DU at 2:31 PM on May 1, 2011


How old is this information?

Current? The most active patent systems are those of the US, Japan, and Germany. The Nordic countries, Britain, Holland and South Korea are also up there in the patent leagues. Those are countries that also happen to rank very highly in the UN's Human Development Index.
posted by Skeptic at 2:39 PM on May 1, 2011


Skeptic
notashroom In agriculture, patents have been used to bankrupt smaller farmers (our GM seeds mixed with your crop, therefore we own your crop) and increase the corporate agricopoly.

I guess you are referring to the Monsanto vs. Schmeiser case in Canada. It is important to note that the Supreme Court of Canada explicitly ruled that Percy Schmeiser was not an "innocent bystander", but actively sought to use Monsanto's GM seeds:


Yes, that, but also, Monsanto is taking what has always been a renewable resource, seeds for growing crops, and turned it into a virtual monopoly, which I think verges on evil, and oughtn't to be allowed by patent law..

Since 1997, more than 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide.

Suicide rates of farmers in India have increased as farmers are finding it harder to earn a living using more expensive Monsanto seeds

To-date, [2005] Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers; and 147 farmers and 39 small businesses or farm companies have had to fight for their lives to avoid paying additional court costs, attorneys’ fees, and in some cases, costs incurred by Monsanto while investigating them

A farmer opposed to Monsanto Co.'s genetic seed licensing practices was sentenced pMay 7] in federal court at St. Louis to eight months in prison for lying about a truckload of cotton seed he hid for a friend.

The Public Patent Foundation filed suit on behalf of 270,000 people from sixty organic and sustainable businesses and trade associations, including thousands of certified-organic farmers. In Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto, et al. (U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, Case No. 11 CIV 2163), PUBPAT details the invalidity of any patent that poisons people and the environment, and that is not useful to society, two hallmarks of US patent law.*

In 2005, the Center for Food Safety released Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers,1 a groundbreaking report which documents the Monsanto Company’s unprecedented use of patents and restrictive licensing agreements to investigate and sue farmers for suspected seed-saving.
posted by notashroom at 2:56 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


notashroom India's patent system is notoriously weak. I doubt Monsanto even bothers to patent its GM seeds there. To blame the real plight of India's farmers on patents is akin to blaming it on snowstorms: quite irrelevant, considering the local conditions. Also, your links are borked.

Your other points, relating to Monsanto's enforcement of its patents in North America, all link to less-than-impartial advocacy groups. So, Monsanto has developed GM seeds, patented them and, oh horror, actually enforces the patents.

"Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers; and 147 farmers and 39 small businesses or farm companies have had to fight for their lives"

Numbers that deserve to be put into perspective. According to the EPA, "the number of farms in the U.S. stands at about two million."

I may not carry Monsanto in my heart, but lawsuits against 90 farms out of two million do not make an evil monopolist.
posted by Skeptic at 3:16 PM on May 1, 2011


I can't think of a single silicon valley company that exists because of software patents.

Yeah, I was mostly thinking of chips, not software. (My startup did chips; patents were very important for us.)
posted by ryanrs at 3:50 PM on May 1, 2011


Skeptic, it's clear we're on different sides of the issue. My position is that it's immoral to allow or enforce patents on seeds, full stop. I realize that would be a devastating blow to Monsanto, but frankly, I don't give a damn.

Sorry I borked a couple of the links.
posted by notashroom at 4:03 PM on May 1, 2011


My position is that it's immoral to allow or enforce patents on seeds, full stop.

Sorry, but I have to ask you to explain why. Monsanto (and other companies as well) have invested a considerable amount of money in developing GM seeds. That money has gone into paying researchers, research facilities, etc. It's obvious that they invested that money to get a return on investment, return which they can only get if the fruit of their investment is protected. Now, farmers are free to buy those seeds or not (unless they want an organic certification, in which case they actually won't be free to buy GM seeds). If they choose to buy GM seeds, at Monsanto's terms, it must be because they themselves see an advantage (read: profit) in it. So, if both Monsanto and the farmers who freely choose to buy their patented seeds are right, allowing and enforcing those patents is not only perfectly moral, but actually, by creating an incentive for developing those seeds in the first place, those patents have benefitted not just Monsanto (its workforce, shareholders, etc.), but also the farmers who bought the seeds, and possibly the public at large, who benefits from enhanced farm productivity.

Allowing and enforcing patents on existing seeds would be immoral. But, as it happens, it is not allowed. Using a dominant position in the seed market to drive out competition is illegal (although one may wish that anti-trust regulators were a bit more proactive). Selling patented seeds to farmers without duly informing them of the conditions attached to the sale is also illegal (and difficult: farmers have had now more than enough time to evaluate their and other farmers' experiences with Monsanto as a seed supplier).

So, please, why do you think that allowing patents on seeds (as opposed to, for example, other farmers' supplies, such as tractors, pumps, fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, etc.) is immoral? I'm genuinely curious, as well as rather irritated at the disinformation that is being propagated (compare in particular the popular coverage of Monsanto vs. Schmeiser with the actual content of the Supreme Court of Canada's verdict).
posted by Skeptic at 4:41 PM on May 1, 2011


The core of my objection to patenting seeds is actually overall an objection to patenting living organisms. I don't think we ought to "own" DNA or RNA except our own. I don't know that I can fully articulate why. To a degree, it's about objecting to ownership of a living thing (or the raw materials for one, containing the necessary genetic material). To another it's also about GM being to me a human imposition/improvement on evolution, which is a natural process of living things and not a laboratory invention.

And then there's the fact that these are seeds largely to support the feeding of human beings, food being the second most basic need after water and which far too many people lack access to sufficient quantities and quality of. This seems like it's raising the bar to access to food -- not just Monsanto, though they are a big player -- and in my morality, deliberately making it significantly more difficult and/or more expensive for anyone to grow food is a net bad.
posted by notashroom at 5:11 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Patents are neither "good" nor "evil". They just have costs and benefits."


To hell with it, I'll Godwin away.

Do you think Nazi doctors should have been able to apply for patents for the various experiments/inventions/discoveries?
posted by oddman at 5:51 PM on May 1, 2011


Are you being deliberately obtuse, delmoi? The whole point of Directive 98/44/EC was that some things are not patentable because they are immoral to do. To quote its Art. 6 in its entirety:

1. Inventions shall be considered unpatentable where their commercial exploitation would be contrary to ordre public or morality; however, exploitation shall not be deemed to be so contrary merely because it is prohibited by law or regulation.
Deliberately Obtuse? I think you're making a lot of assumptions that I don't share. What they are, I can't fathom. What I don't understand is why it should be a good idea that these things should be patentable in the first place. Prof. Dr. Oliver Bruestle works at the University of Ulm which is a public university paid for by the German people. As an academic, he would still need to publish in order to further his career, whether or not he got patents on his work.

The second thing, you seem to think it matters what the official philosophical basis for the decision is or whatever. Who cares? It's not all that clear to me that they think Stem Cells themselves are immoral, rather it would be immoral to patent anything based on them (at least the embryonic kind). That seems reasonable to me.

The question with patents shouldn't be "why not" but rather "why should they". With something like chips or mechanical tools, it makes more sense. On the other hand, when it comes to biology or software I don't see much value.
posted by delmoi at 6:36 PM on May 1, 2011


And it is quite shocking to see Greenpeace Germany use the same foetus imagery as hardcore anti-abortion activists.

Agreed. It's...odd.

If Greenpeace hadn't turned Americans against nuclear energy we might have a much better chance against global warming. Clean electricity for home and transportation.

That was part and parcel to their opposition to nuclear weapons, the development of which use the byproducts of nuclear power. If Greenpeace hadn't turned Americans against nuclear power, we might have a much better chance of being a giant radioactive crater.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:05 PM on May 1, 2011


notashroom To a degree, it's about objecting to ownership of a living thing (or the raw materials for one, containing the necessary genetic material).

That's an extremely odd objection, considering that farming is, and has always been, about ownership of living beings, whether it's plants, seeds, cattle, or poultry, as well as their genetic material (in the form of their descendents). Indeed, agriculture is at the root of the whole concept of ownership.

To another it's also about GM being to me a human imposition/improvement on evolution, which is a natural process of living things and not a laboratory invention.

Again, selective breeding is as old as agriculture, and it's just as much a human imposition on evolution as gene splicing. Nearly all our food is the result of millenia of selective breeding, and the organisms we get it from are nothing like their wild varieties.

And then there's the fact that these are seeds largely to support the feeding of human beings, food being the second most basic need after water and which far too many people lack access to sufficient quantities and quality of. This seems like it's raising the bar to access to food -- not just Monsanto, though they are a big player -- and in my morality, deliberately making it significantly more difficult and/or more expensive for anyone to grow food is a net bad.

Except that it does NOT raise the access to food, but lowers it instead. You cannot patent an existing variety. Farmers are perfectly free to continue using their own seed stocks, and there is nothing Monsanto can legitimately do to stop them from doing so. If some farmers choose to buy patented seeds from Monsanto and others instead, it's because they think that the economic benefits for them, in terms of overall costs and increased yields, largely outweigh the increased cost of the seed. In short, those seeds make it easier and/or cheaper for the farmers to grow food.

Now, most of those new seeds wouldn't have been developed at all, if it wasn't for the possibility of patenting them. Thus, if anything would make it more difficult and/or expensive for anyone to grow food, it would be to ban such patents, and/or GM seeds. By your own purported moral standards, that would then be immoral. (This is, for instance, why I have strong moral qualms about the organic farming requirements of many "fair trade" certificators).

Now, I'm not naïve, and I know that large corporations are largely amoral and act purely out of self-interest. I don't idealise farmers either. Certainly, a strong regulatory oversight is necessary to ensure that large corporations like Monsanto don't abuse their strength and market power against smaller counterparts. Education is also needed to ensure that farmers aren't bamboozled by their marketing drives. But being on principle against GM seeds and patents thereon doesn't strike me as a particularly moral position, but a purely emotional one, and sheer emotions are rarely a good moral guidance, especially where large and manipulative economic interests are at stake.
posted by Skeptic at 2:02 AM on May 2, 2011


delmoi It's not all that clear to me that they think Stem Cells themselves are immoral, rather it would be immoral to patent anything based on them (at least the embryonic kind).

It is explicitly written there in the Directive. Can't you read?! Not patenting, but commercial exploitation of "uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes" is to be considered immoral, and, as a result, unpatentable.

There are other inventions that are considered immoral, or at least inappropriate, to patent but certainly not to use. It is for instance the case of medical treatments in Europe. That you can't see the difference, considering your stated opposition to patents in general, confirms that you are indeed being deliberately obtuse.
posted by Skeptic at 2:19 AM on May 2, 2011


That's an extremely odd objection, considering that farming is, and has always been, about ownership of living beings, whether it's plants, seeds, cattle, or poultry, as well as their genetic material (in the form of their descendents). Indeed, agriculture is at the root of the whole concept of ownership.

Owning livestock, yes, but in the sense that "these are animals I have invested time and effort and risk (and money, in modern agriculture, possibly bartered goods or services otherwise), and I should get a return on my investment." Not as in "I own the genetic material in perpetuity." If I sell you a bull, should you have to pay me every time you breed him, as if he were licensed to you, or should reproduction be part of the package?

Owning land and crops: I own the product of my labor and investment, but not the genetic material therein. If I sell you bushels of corn, you are perfectly within your right to use it as you see fit, to roast it, grind it, throw it to your pigs, retrieve the seeds and plant your own crop so next year you don't have to buy from me.

Pretending agricultural ownership has traditionally meant this setup is disingenuous. If you owned anything, you owned its reproductive rights as well -- whether plants, animal, or even human. Now there's an artificial separation being introduced between owning the plant and owning its reproductive material and processes.

Again, selective breeding is as old as agriculture, and it's just as much a human imposition on evolution as gene splicing.

Yup. Exactly. So if we've been doing it since essentially the beginning of agriculture, why should it suddenly merit patents, when it never did before? Because the manipulations are taking place in a laboratory, instead of the more traditional fields and greenhouses? Why should that matter?

Except that it does NOT raise the access to food, but lowers it instead. You cannot patent an existing variety.

What difference does it make if you can't patent an existing variety if the net effect is that seeds are increasingly being divided into "GM" vs "certified organic", and either way, they cost more? And why should any patent be issued?

Now, most of those new seeds wouldn't have been developed at all, if it wasn't for the possibility of patenting them.

Right, because the lack of patenting clearly was a barrier to selective breeding and other agricultural research for millennia. That argument simply doesn't hold water. There might not be as much innovation as quickly, because there might well be less money allocated to research if the company funding it can't get a lock on the profit-potential, but it's still in their best interest to improve their product, and the companies and Ag schools would still do research.

But being on principle against GM seeds and patents thereon doesn't strike me as a particularly moral position

It's also half a strawman. I never objected to GM seeds. I object to patents on them. I am not fond of slippery-slope arguments overall, but I do think there's a case to be made for that here: if patents are allowed on the genetic material for soybeans and corn and which prohibit farmers from saving seeds from their harvest and reusing them, why not patent lab mice and rats and rhesus monkeys bred to be genetically identical for consistency of results? And as long we're doing that, why not patent the chickens with breasts so heavy they can't walk? And then patent disease-resistant hogs? And so on and so on.

Patents should be for things and processes, not living beings.
posted by notashroom at 7:19 AM on May 2, 2011


Owning livestock, yes, but in the sense that "these are animals I have invested time and effort and risk (and money, in modern agriculture, possibly bartered goods or services otherwise), and I should get a return on my investment." Not as in "I own the genetic material in perpetuity."

No patent allows you to own anything in perpetuity. Patent terms are 20 years maximum. The patents on the earliest GM seeds are already running out.

If I sell you a bull, should you have to pay me every time you breed him, as if he were licensed to you, or should reproduction be part of the package?

This will depend on the terms of the sale, not on whether there are any patents around. Charging for having your cows inseminated by a champion bull isn't exactly a novel practice, you know...

If I sell you bushels of corn, you are perfectly within your right to use it as you see fit, to roast it, grind it, throw it to your pigs, retrieve the seeds and plant your own crop so next year you don't have to buy from me.

Again, this depends on the specific terms of the sale, not on whether there is a patent.

So if we've been doing it since essentially the beginning of agriculture, why should it suddenly merit patents, when it never did before?

Well before patents on GM organisms, there were already so-called breeders' rights on conventionally bred new plant varieties.

Because the manipulations are taking place in a laboratory, instead of the more traditional fields and greenhouses?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes.

Why should that matter?

In most countries (the US is a bit special on that account) patents are granted only on technological inventions. Genetic engineering is considered technological, and thus patentable. Conventional breeding isn't considered technological, and its products thus aren't patentable (but can obtain similar protection through breeders' rights).

The question of whether GM plants truly deserve patent protection or just protection by breeders' rights has been an issue of much legal debate in court. But it's rather more nuanced than the "no patents on life" slogan.

What difference does it make if you can't patent an existing variety if the net effect is that seeds are increasingly being divided into "GM" vs "certified organic", and either way, they cost more?

Huh? Non-GM seeds aren't necessarily "certified organic". You can still use your same old seeds, and I don't see why they should cost more. Do you have any solid evidence whatsoever of that "net effect" which you claim? I'm afraid it's quite mythical.

There might not be as much innovation as quickly

Exactly. In the meantime, potential food is not being produced. Immoral, according to your own reasoning.

I never objected to GM seeds.

Actually, you did, or at least appeared to do: To another it's also about GM being to me a human imposition/improvement on evolution, which is a natural process of living things and not a laboratory invention.

Anyway, opposition to GM seeds as such is alive and well here in Europe, and often draped in the mantle of "morality", when it's more about defending powerful local farming lobbies from foreign competition, especially from developing countries such as Brazil. It isn't a straw man at all.

I am not fond of slippery-slope arguments overall, but I do think there's a case to be made for that here: if patents are allowed on the genetic material for soybeans and corn and which prohibit farmers from saving seeds from their harvest and reusing them, why not patent lab mice and rats and rhesus monkeys bred to be genetically identical for consistency of results?

If it helps the development of new life-saving drugs against diseases such as malaria or AIDS, why not indeed? Wouldn't indeed be immoral to slow down pharmaceutical research?

There are already very strict guidelines on animal suffering in medical experimentation. Whether such genetic engineering is allowable or not is a matter for consideration in that context, and not in the context of patent law.

And as long we're doing that, why not patent the chickens with breasts so heavy they can't walk? And then patent disease-resistant hogs?

Again, we are into food production and morality territory. Mind you, there is a very significant difference between plants on one hand and chickens or hogs on the other. While chickens and hogs do feel pain and suffering, wheat and corn don't. Moreover, such animal suffering is already common with some conventionally bred animal varieties. A number of disease-prone, inbred dog and cat varieties come to mind, as do some varieties of cattle, like the Belgian Blue.

As it happens, abovementioned European Directive 98/44/EC also explicitly excludes, as "immoral", from patentability: "processes for modifying the genetic identity of animals which are likely to cause them suffering without any substantial medical benefit to man or animal, and also animals resulting from such processes."

Patents should be for things and processes, not living beings.

Again, why? Also, living beings are also "things", and genetic engineering processes are also processes.
posted by Skeptic at 8:30 AM on May 2, 2011


Charging for having your cows inseminated by a champion bull isn't exactly a novel practice, you know...

Exactly. The one who owns the bull owns the right to his stud services. Under an analogous scenario to the crops, owning the bull would not mean owning that right, but having to license it or purchase the semen from whatever company paid for the research that made this bull blue or resistant to malaria or whatever.

In most countries (the US is a bit special on that account) patents are granted only on technological inventions. Genetic engineering is considered technological, and thus patentable. Conventional breeding isn't considered technological, and its products thus aren't patentable (but can obtain similar protection through breeders' rights).

I think that's an arbitrary distinction, when it comes to living, evolving, organisms. It's not like if you leave a thousand routers (for example) undisturbed in an isolated environment for a few hundred years, you'll come back to find that there are new routers with characteristics different from the originals there. But if you do that with mice or birds or bugs or viruses or snap peas or wheat, you might. One requires human intervention to change, the other has that ability built right in.

Exactly. In the meantime, potential food is not being produced.

That doesn't follow. Potential food isn't being produced because farmers can use the seeds from last year's crop to start this one?

Actually, you did, or at least appeared to do: To another it's also about GM being to me a human imposition/improvement on evolution, which is a natural process of living things and not a laboratory invention.

That's not an objection to GM; it's an objection to issuing a patent on [human intervention in/improvement of/imposition of human goals on] a natural process. Perhaps I didn't word it clearly enough. I don't have a blanket objection to GM crops or livestock, although I think there are valid concerns about specific aspects and implementation.

If it helps the development of new life-saving drugs against diseases such as malaria or AIDS, why not indeed? Wouldn't indeed be immoral to slow down pharmaceutical research?

Wouldn't it be nice if life were truly black and white instead of all these messy shades of gray? There are a lot of things we could do that might be efficient ways to improve the quality of life for some people, but we don't do them because they are morally objectionable beyond whatever benefits might accrue (A Modest Proposal comes to mind). No, I don't think the end justifies the means. My argument is not about animal experimentation and its moral aspects, but simply the fact that lab animals would likely be first on the list of patented animals.

Mind you, there is a very significant difference between plants on one hand and chickens or hogs on the other. While chickens and hogs do feel pain and suffering, wheat and corn don't.

As far as I'm concerned, pain and suffering are irrelevant to whether patents should be issued. They should be relevant to agricultural regulators and consumers and kosher-certifiers, but not patent offices.

Again, why? Also, living beings are also "things", and genetic engineering processes are also processes.

Yeah, yeah, we're all nouns, humans are animals, anything you can touch is a thing, etc. I think it's pretty clear that I was distinguishing between living organisms and "other." I have no objection to patenting genetic engineering processes. I have an objection to patenting resultant genetic material.

If ABCCo develops a new process for refining DNA to remove inherited retroviruses, for example, I have no problem with their being issued a patent on that process. I do have a problem with their being issued a patent on the resultant refined genetic material.
posted by notashroom at 9:27 AM on May 2, 2011


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