Patents on Genetic Resources?

A Catholic perspective for the World Intellectual Property Organization


It is easy to see why the codes to life-functions are both important to protect and attractive to patent for private companies. Scientific knowledge on genetic resources has developed extremely rapidly in the last 20 years. Since the technology to read and analyse DNA has become accessible to more and more firms, the question of patents on inventions claimed over genetic material has also increased. In general terms, national intellectual property regimes are not well adapted to deal with genetic resources. The special significance of the codes to life-functions calls for not too eagerly allowing patents on them. The common good, prudence, and justice must be part of the discussion on patent rights on genetic resources.

But as is often the case, important issues are complex. We cannot reduce them to simple statements and unilateral decisions. In an increasingly globalised world, answers to patents on genetic resources, if any, are better met at the level of multilateral diplomacy, through negotiated agreement. Justice and the universal common good will too readily be set aside in bilateral agreements.

The World Intellectual Property Organization has been one of the most active fora for the debate on patents on genetic resources in the last decade. The whole process is now reaching maturity and in the next year a legal instrument will move through the WIPO General Assembly on the issue of patents on genetic resources and traditional knowledge. As is often the case with such negotiated legal texts, answers to complex issues are left to the fine print. The jungle of technical terms makes it difficult for non-specialists to see how the wider picture is addressed. Today, the question of patents on genetic resources has boiled down to the question of who can claim legal ownership of genetic resources and how to handle fair compensation between traditional people, countries of origin, and inventors.

However, since it is easy to overlook ends and goals in the heated debate and deadlock over vocabulary, the whole process must not be dismissed on simplistic assumptions over international bureaucracy and power plays. Those living in the real world know the necessity of hammering out an agreement on this issue. No agreement at all would be a detriment not only to the poor, but indeed to all of us. This is a matter of living up to the universal common good, beyond narrow-minded conceptions of the good of 'my' national companies, 'my' country, 'my' region, or 'my' allies. As much as anything else, the codes to life functions are of great significance to mankind.

2014 will be a year of intense activity at WIPO on genetic resources. The Caritas in Veritate Foundation seeks to contribute to the debate on the legal instrument. Too often the Catholic perspective is seen as overly broad and disconnected from reality. This report proves that this is not the case. A Christian perspective on international affairs does not remain solely at the level of principles and wishful thinking. It trickles down even to the fine print of a negotiated text. We hope that this working paper, created with the active collaboration of the Mission of the Holy See at the United Nations in Geneva, may contribute to reaching a just and fair agreement on this important issue.

This working paper thoroughly addresses the issue of patents on genetic resources. First through a report by Roman Cholij of the Von Hügel Institute on the legal and ethical questions forming the basis of the present negotiation process; then, by publishing here the narrow corpus of recent texts by the magisterium of the Church on intellectual property and genetic resources; and finally, by presenting a position paper for the coming negotiation.

Read the full text of the Working Paper here