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Intellectual genetics

Tug of war

Two worthy legal moratoria – the Agreement on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)
and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – are potentially in direct conflict when it comes to plant genetic resources and intellectual property rights, at least that is the conclusion of legal expert Megan Bowman. However, potential conflicts could be reconciled in this context by applying the common sense notion of remaining true to the over-arching principle of global welfare-maximisation in TRIPS and by utilising patent exemptions in appropriate circumstances. This, Bowman claims, will allow TRIPS and CBD to operate in a way that achieves both their objectives equally well so that intellectual property rights can be appropriately recognised and biodiversity can be sustained.

Writing in the International Journal of Intellectual Property Management (2007, Vol. 1, pp 277-292), who is a trained barrister and a lecturer in the Law School and Centre of Strategic Economic Studies, at Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia, points out that international recognition of intellectual property rights has grown, particular in the biotech arena, as biodiversity levels have fallen across the globe. Bowman points out that these two trends have become related since the creation of TRIPS and CBD in 1993 whose spheres of operation overlap significantly, particularly in relation to plant genetic resources and intellectual property rights. Bowman states that this is because biological diversity, at both genetic and physical levels, is being exploited as the key ingredient for lucrative biotech and pharmaceutical industrial creation. Patent protection of that creation raises questions about biodiversity sustainability and also access to the resultant benefits and technologies derived from use of a raw product ‘owned’ by source countries or communities.

Currently we are experiencing global biodiversity degradation and decimation due to causes such as global warming that may result in the extinction of nearly half the current lifeforms by 2050. Bowman comments: “Apart from the intrinsic value of biological diversity, without healthy and diverse ecological systems on this planet there is no quality of life for humans – no fresh air or water, no arable land or edible food, and exposure to devastating storms, floods and droughts. But at the same time, humans are evolutionary creatures and we see that clearly with technological innovation. We are also wed to the dollar and we see that, in the context of this discussion, in the jealous guarding of rent for patents, specifically in the growing sector of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals based on plant genetic resources. So the question is how do we marry these components in a way that honours each of them? I look at this question from a purely legal standpoint. Undoubtedly any solution is complex, multi-faceted and multi-disciplined. Nonetheless, the legal principles embedded in the key international treaties on protection of biodiversity and protection of intellectual property rights in plant genetic resources share a commitment to global welfare enhancement. So it becomes clear that the legal foundations exist for cooperation between these two sectors. This knowledge paves the way for productive dialogue and action in boardrooms, patent offices and parliaments around the world.”

Related article from the Sciencebase archives on corporate academia: Will publicly funded research become mired in patent protection and intellectual property rights or remain purely altruistic?

(Updated: August 21, 2007)

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