The patent bargain
It may take a patent lawyer to fully understand the scope of US patent number 7,777,022, but one thing is clear: at first glance, it certainly appears broad. The patent includes 4.2 million genetic sequences, some of which were identified computationally in a fishing trip for sequences that have applications in virology.
In June, the US Supreme Court determined that patents should no longer be granted for ‘inventing’ naturally occurring human genes, ending 30 years of the practice at the US Patent and Trademark Office. The decision will probably affect the growing genetic-diagnostics industry, and its influence will extend to patents on genes from other organisms. But it did not abolish all claims on DNA sequences — some have estimated that the case will affect only about 8,000 of the at least 72,000 US patents that mention DNA sequences of one sort of another.
That leaves businesses with the unenviable task of sifting through the remainder to determine which, if any, will affect the commercialization of a given invention. Patent 7,777,022 highlights the growing difficulty in doing so: although it lists millions of sequences, it lays claim to only a few. A firehose of data and limited search tools make it impossible for all but highly trained patent specialists to make sense of the landscape around any technology. Highly trained patent experts do not come cheap: companies invest millions each year to keep track of the shifting intellectual-property landscape. Those that cannot afford the fee take the risk of being unable to patent their discoveries, or of being sued.
Click here to read more from this December 11, 2013 Nature editorial.