Another Innovation Knifing: Cutting “Natural Products” Out of the Scope of Patentable Subject MatterBy
One of the important new antibiotics discovered and developed by pharmaceutical companies in the past few years is Rifampicin and its relative Rifamycin. These potent antibiotics remain key tools in fighting off serious infection. Their story begins with a soil sample taken from a pine forest on the French Riviera in 1957 that was then studied in an Italian laboratory, where unusual antimicrobial properties were observed in a newly discovered bacterium. eventually an unusual molecule produced by the bacterium was identified, isolated, mass produced–and, yes, patented.
Rifamycin was credited with conquering drug-resistant tuberculosis in the 1960s. These drugs are marvelous discoveries, important pharmaceutical inventions, and became the subject of multiple patents providing protection and incentives to the developers and improvers of this unique products.
Thank goodness these products were discovered and patented decades ago, because today the USPTO would probably reject any patent application out of hand using its newly fabricated and terribly damaging rules that rule out “natural products” as patentable subject matter. This is the result of what appears to be a politically motivated attack on the pharmaceutical industry by the US government, using a Supreme Court decision (Myriad Genetics) as the excuse, but twisting it to go beyond what the Supreme Court said. The political angle is that politicians want to “stick it” to the pharmaceutical industry and appear to be taking steps to lower the cost of drugs by limiting patent scope and other means. But the long-term effect will be reduced innovation and less progress in medication.
If a product is actually novel, useful, and non-obvious, the fact that it had origins of some kind somewhere in nature should not be a barrier to patentability. The fact that an unknown bacterium in some French soil existed in nature does not enable the public to understand and produce a powerful, pure antibiotic useful in treating many diseases. Those who discovered, tested, refined, and modified the compounds produced by the bacterium deserved and needed patent production. Without it, there would be lessened incentives to take on the burdens of discovery, testing and drug development. We would be less innovative, not more, without patents for novel materials with some kind of basis in nature. But today, such patents and such innovations are threatened. It’s another example of innovation fatigue driven by political agendas and political machinations.
If you think about it, every invention has some roots in nature. The protons, neutrons, and electrons used in every object or affected in every process come from nature. Are we sure that we need a vague and indefinite “natural products” exclusion beyond the more sensible previous criteria for patentability?