21 May 2009

Intellectual Monopolies Kill: Two Examples

One of the reasons I object to the term "intellectual property" is that its cuddly familiarity makes it hard for people to understand that intellectual monopolies kill thousands of people every year - something that seems unlikely for "property". Here are just two of the many ways in which they do so - both involve patents on genetic material.

First example:

This week, genetic patents came under a full-bore legal assault when groups representing more than 100,000 doctors and researchers, working together with lawyers at the Public Patent Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the PTO and Myriad Genetics, a Utah-based genetic testing company. It's a lawsuit two years in the making.

The suit's immediate goal is to invalidate seven patents that give Myriad the sole rights to administer tests and do research connected to a pair of genes closely connected to breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 (pronounced "bracka-one" and "bracka-two.") Should the plaintiffs prove successful, though, their strike against the PTO would have far-reaching implications.


Myriad is a ripe target for a several reasons. First, the patents it holds are on tests that diagnose breast and ovarian cancer. That got the attention of ACLU lawyers who focus on women's rights. Second, Ravicher says that—unlike some corporate patent-holders that widely grant low-cost licenses to researchers—Myriad has aggressively enforced its patents, making them particularly harmful.

"They have gone around and shut down researchers who are doing BRCA1 and BRCA2 research and providing clinical services," Ravicher says. "That includes universities like the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. They send cease and desist letters, and threaten to sue people."

This affects people directly and adversely:

Six named plaintiffs in the case are women who have been diagnosed with ovarian or breast cancer and have been unable to get proper treatment because of Myriad's patents. Lisbeth Ceriani, for example, is a single mother from Massachusetts who was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2008; she can't her blood samples processed by Myriad because they won't accept her coverage from MassHealth, a Medicaid insurance program for low-income people. Another plaintiff, 39-year-old Genae Girard, wanted a second opinion after she tested positive for a dangerous mutation under Myriad's test—but because of Myriad's enforcement of its patent rights, is unable to get that second opinion.

If people with breast cancer genes are demonstrably suffering in this way, statistics tells us that some of them will be dying as a direct result of Myriad's aggressive defence of its unwarranted intellectual monopolies.

Example two:

Tara Lohan: Farmer suicides in India recently made the news when stories broke last month about 1,500 farmers taking their own lives, what do you attribute these deaths to?

Vandana Shiva:
Over the last decade, 200,000 farmers have committed suicide. The 1,500 figure is for the state of Chattisgarh. In Vidharbha, 4,000 are committing suicide annually. This is the region where 4 million acres of cotton have been grown with Monsanto's Bt cotton. The suicides are a direct result of a debt trap created by ever-increasing costs of seeds and chemicals and constantly falling prices of agricultural produce.

When Monsanto's Bt cotton was introduced, the seed costs jumped from 7 rupees per kilo to 17,000 rupees per kilo. Our survey shows a thirteenfold increase in pesticide use in cotton in Vidharbha. Meantime, the $4 billion subsidy given to U.S. agribusiness for cotton has led to dumping and depression of international prices.

Squeezed between high costs and negative incomes, farmers commit suicide when their land is being appropriated by the money lenders who are the agents of the agrichemical and seed corporations. The suicides are thus a direct result of industrial globalized agriculture and corporate monopoly on seeds.

This is a particularly clear example of how intellectual monopolies take away at every level: they make seeds *less* useful, more controlled and more expensive. For hundreds of thousands of the farmers, who had managed to eke out an existence using natural seeds, the shift to those with built-in DRM and protected as part of an intellectual monopoly has not just been disastrous, but literally fatal.

So when people extol the virtues of "IP", remember that these monopolies may only be "intellectual", but they have very real blood on their virtual hands.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Anonymous said...

So what's the solution? If technology companies can't patent their discoveries in order to profit from them, then the R & D doesn't get funded and the discoveries never happen in the first place. Are you expecting that government or university research can carry the R & D load without private investment? Not sure how realistic that is.

As far as the cotton goes, the tragedy of the catastrophic rate of Indian farmer suicide pre-dates BT cotton and has more to do with the lending system that the government of that country allows no matter what type of seed the farmer chooses to plant:


Glyn Moody said...

Well, if you read studies like those in Against Intellectual Monopoly (freely available from http://www.dklevine.com/general/intellectual/againstfinal.htm), it seems that you don't need patents for R&D to happen. The advantage of bringing new products to market first is sufficient.

The one area where that may not work is drugs, because costs are so high, but other models like prize money and direct government payment are possibilities.

The thing is, there's a lot of mythology around intellectual monopolies, and it's important to separate out the truth that studies from economists reveal.

As to the Bt cotton, it's obviously a complex issue. I'm not sure that an article in a magazine for US farmers is necessarily objective, but I agree that the original article I cited may also have its biases.

Peter Suber said...

Hi Glyn. Here's a third example.

Glyn Moody said...

@Peter: Many thanks for that. An appalling story, and a great example of why intellectual monopolies are harmful.

David said...

Bravo! Glad to see bloggers getting it, as opposed to people like Gene Quinn at ipwatchdog who unabashedly defends pretty much any patent.

The ACLU suit and your analysis are right on. I actually just published a book on the subject and am excited now that finally legal action is being taken. My book is entitled Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes and I am following the Myriad case at my own blog: http://whoownsyou-drkoepsell.blogspot.com/ I made a link there to this excellent post of yours on the subject.

Glad to see you recognizing Levine's work on the role of IP in stifling innovation as well.

Keep up the good fight.

David Koepsell

Glyn Moody said...

@David: great timing for your book, I hope it sells well (and don't worry about the Torrents - they will *help* get the word out and thus sell it).

I actually wrote a little bit about this (and Myriad) back in 2004, when my book "Digital Code of Life" was published:


Of course, it was far too early, and nobody was interested. Now it's totally out of date....

I've added your blog to my RSS feed: let's keep in touch, since we're fighting on the same side....

David said...


Excellent! I will check out your work, and yes, we'll definitely keep in touch on this and related issues. Thanks for the link, and keep up the good work.

all my best,