Readers wanted us to comment on the ongoing dogfight related to CRISPR patents. Only thing we can say is that patents related to publicly funded research should be placed in the public domain, because otherwise the patent fight damages basic research at several levels.
The contemporary systems for patents and basic research have different origins. The patent system was medieval and came from the monopoly rights granted by the kings in the Anglo-countries. Such monopolies were messy throughout their entire history, and people, who support them, are enamored with the sanitized versions of events.
This power was used to raise money for the Crown, and was widely abused, as the Crown granted patents in respect of all sorts of common goods (salt, for example). Consequently, the Court began to limit the circumstances in which they could be granted. After public outcry, James I of England was forced to revoke all existing monopolies and declare that they were only to be used for “projects of new invention”. This was incorporated into the Statute of Monopolies in which Parliament restricted the Crown’s power explicitly so that the King could only issue letters patent to the inventors or introducers of original inventions for a fixed number of years.
Towards the end of the 18th century, and influenced by the philosophy of John Locke, the granting of patents began to be viewed as a form of intellectual property right, rather than simply the obtaining of economic privilege. A negative aspect of the patent law also emerged in this period - the abuse of patent privilege to monopolise the market and prevent improvement from other inventors. A notable example of this was the behaviour of Boulton & Watt in hounding their competitors such as Richard Trevithick through the courts, and preventing their improvements to the steam engine from being realised until their patent expired.
The contemporary system of basic research and academic credits had its origin in the continental Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. Many enlightenment concepts such as giving credits to abstract ideas came from that period.
Prior to the world wars, German companies produced many high quality patents, and those patents were extensively looted by USA under the guidance of Vannevar Bush. Vannevar Bush also guided the building of US science following the model of pre-war Germany, with help from the immigrant Europeans moving to USA from Europe. Only element German system did not have was patents in academic institutions, and USA managed to screw up that part in its unique way.
At first, the federal government gave large amounts of free money to the universities, but kept all patents. Then came the Bayh-Dole act of 1980 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayh%E2%80%93Dole_Act), where federal
government gave full rights of patents for research done through public money to the academic institutions and allowed to commercialize them to fund ‘academic’ research.
In the long run, those two systems of supporting academics (pre-enlightentment patent monopoly and post-enlightenment educational approach) are incompatible. The attitude of basic science in giving credit and respect to the earliest contributors cannot work together with an ‘one person attempts to own everything’ system.
Under the influence of the ascendant economic philosophy of free trade economics in England, the patent law began to be criticised in the 1850s as obstructing research and benefiting the few at the expense of public good.
[Patents] projected an artificial idol of the single inventor, radically denigrated the role of the intellectual commons, and blocked a path to this commons for other citizens citizens who were all, on this account, potential inventors too. […] Patentees were the equivalent of squatters on public land or better, of uncouth market traders who planted their barrows in the middle of the highway and barred the way of the people.
Similar debates took place during that time in other European countries such as France, Prussia, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Based on the criticism of patents as state-granted monopolies inconsistent with free trade, the Netherlands abolished patents in 1869 (having established them in 1817), and did not reintroduce them until 1912. In Switzerland, criticism of patents delayed the introduction of patent laws until 1907.
Readers may enjoy the following article and related comments from ‘In the Pipeline’ blog.
[Why This CRISPR Article, and Why Now?
Various comments -
Im honestly confused why is Eric Landers article a terrible conflict of interest, but Jennifer Doudnas writing on the history of CRISPR (thinking of that Nature piece a few weeks ago) is just fine? Her conflict is much more direct than Landers, and her piece certainly doesnt seem any more balanced.
Doudna published a Comment in Nature last month. She should have seen this coming. I like Landers Perspective because at least he gave us a map of all those people working on CRISPR before 2012.
Funny how scientists fight over money and reputation.
Set aside all the bitterness, I think this paper gave credit where it is due, in particular to those scientists from not-well-known institutes and non- English speaking countries.
The sad story about this paper is that not many are talking about the early and real pioneers of the CRISPR field and everyone is obsessed about Doudna vs. Zhang. If you read this and other CRISPR papers, neither Doudna nor Zhang contributed to the identification of the three essential components of the CRISPR-Cas9 system.
Doudna even went on to claim that she invented CRISPR-Cas9 in her TED talk even though her contribution is to convert a 3-component system to a 2-component systeman engineering feat at best. Doudna & Zhang are more like Steve Jobs while the early pioneers are more like Wozniak and others.
I really hope the Nobel committee recognizes the early contributorsthese scientists were given a hard time by the scientific community (their papers were rejected!) and the scientist are again doing a disservice by willfully ignoring early pioneers and obsessing about the engineering feats of Doudna and Zhang.