The Mankato, Minn., Free Press
Two recent unanimous Supreme Court decisions delved into cutting-edge genetic research and patent protection. Both decisions will ensure more creative and advanced research that will better society.
In one case, the court ruled that Myriad Genetics Inc. could not claim a patent on genes in the human body. In the other case, the court ruled that agribusiness giant Monsanto did have the right to patent its genetically modified soybean.
Myriad had isolated two gene mutations which greatly increase a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer. What they didn’t do is create or alter any of the genetic information in the mutations. Still, the company acquired a patent on the genes, allowing it to block other companies from offering diagnostic tests unless they paid Myriad substantial licensing fees. The result was cancer screening tests that could have cost as little as hundreds of dollars being done at a cost of $3,000 per test.
The justices ruled that no one has the right to patent naturally occurring things. The decision will produce a flurry of competition among public and private-company researchers to develop more and cheaper genetic tests for a variety of diseases. And companies will still have the ability to make substantial money for their research simply by virtue of being the first to discover and market it.
While the Monsanto case also involved genetics and patents, the issue was clearly different. It arrived at the high court after Indiana farmer Vernon Bowman appealed a lower court verdict against him. In the past, soybean fields could not be sprayed with herbicide because it would kill the soybeans as well as weeds. But Monsanto genetically engineered soybeans that resist herbicide, allowing farmers to keep their fields weed free without having to pull the weeds by hand.
When farmers buy the modified seed — which are triple the cost of traditional seed — they sign a contract pledging not to keep any of the seeds they produce and use them in planting the following spring.
But Bowman thought he found a way around the ban. He purchased soybeans from the local elevator, knowing most would be herbicide resistant. He planted and sprayed them and waited to see which ones survived. He then kept some of the seeds from those plants and planted them the next year.
Monsanto eventually caught up with him and sued, winning an $85,000 judgment. Bowman appealed.
The court correctly ruled that people don’t have the right to replicate a patented product and deny its inventor royalty payments.
Monsanto wasn’t patenting a naturally occurring thing, but a process they invented. Farmers have every right not to plant the modified seed. But if they do, they need to pay the inventor.
The ruling protects what the Founding Fathers knew was a key in fostering creativity and invention: “to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
— The Mankato Free Press