Letter: Poor consultation on patenting

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The Independent Online
From Mr David Shapiro

Sir: Patenting may be too important a topic to be left to Patent Offices, as Tom Wilkie warned us ("In patent need of surgery", 5 September).

On 11 September the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich opens its "hearing" on its strategies for the future. On the face of it, its strategies seem sensible and appropriate. Who could possibly object to "exploiting the potential for synergy as part of a coherent European patent system" or to "providing a low-cost, efficient patent system tailored to the needs of applicants"?

But take note. The EPO thinks that part of "a low-cost, efficient patent system" is that there should be no technology-specific exceptions to patentable matter and that discrimination as to field of technology is wrong. What this jargon covers is patenting human genes and patenting medical processes.

These are complicated issues. Patenting human genes and cell lines derived from human tissue was examined at length in this council's recent report Human Tissue: Ethical and Legal Issues. The report recognised that inventions derived from human tissue were open to patenting. As for genes, it noted that questions of fact arose in each case on whether the existing legal criteria had been met.

What is objectionable about the EPO's "hearing" is that its consultation document appears to have been circulated only among those professionally concerned with patents. The document states - and buried away an page 87 of the background material - that public attitudes have changed to favouring the patentability of medical processes. Not one piece of evidence is offered for this breathtaking statement.

The poor intellectual quality of the document and the failure to circulate it to relevant bodies suggests that something is very wrong with the management of the EPO. At present its management board consists of the heads of the Patent Offices of the member states.

Clearly, before the EPO gets down to inventing its administrative strategies, the first task is to revise the membership of its board.

Yours faithfully,

David Shapiro

Executive Secretary

Nuffield Council on


London, WC1

8 September