In patent need of surgery

Surgeons carrying out operations on the National Health Service may soon face a new, non-medical problem: the procedure they want to carry out may have been patented. Hip replacements, for example, may become more expensive because each operation would involve paying a royalty fee to the patent holder.

When European patent law was drawn up in 1973, surgery was deliberately and explicitly excluded from patenting. However, the European Patent Office in Munich believes that "public attitudes have changed since 1973" and are now in favour of patenting surgical procedures.

Earlier this year there were passionate debates in the European Parliament as MEPs threw out an EC directive on patenting human genes. But the debate seems to have passed the EPO by as it believes that the public favours the idea that human genes should be the intellectual property of international drugs companies, rather than part of mankind's common heritage.

Next week the EPO is holding a meeting in Munich as part of a Pan-European public consultation on the future of the patent system. The organisation's bizarre misreading of public attitude towards patenting human genes was published in a preliminary consultation document. Although this was a public consultation and the report contained judgements of the public mood, the paper was circulated exclusively within the community of patent lawyers and companies interested in protecting their intellectual property. Only three outside organisations responded to the report: all were from the UK and had been alerted to the existence of the document because the Independent had happened to come across a copy of it.

Something is seriously wrong with an organisation that is so introverted and out of touch that it does not even realise it is isolated. In our technological society, the EPO's decisions may reach out from Munich to affect our lives - as we lie on the table in the operating theatre, for example. It is time someone shook it into the modern world.