LETTER:Patents that may save lives

From Mr Andrew Sheard

Sir: Your contributors to the Oncomouse patent debate (reports, 20 November) seem to miss a couple of fundamental points about the patent system:

1. A patent does not allow any person to make or use the patented invention. All it does is to enable the patent owner to stop others commercialising the invention. It does not even prevent further research into the invention. It is merely a weapon against piracy.

2. A patent confers no right of ownership on the patented subject matter, any more than a copyright holder actually owns a book, CD or whatever containing his copyright work.

So the Rev Andrew Linzey's reported concern ("Geneticists lay claim to 'God's creature' ", 20 November) that patenting something living "usurps the prerogative of God'' actually poses rather less of an ethical dilemma than owning a dog.

Further, Kevin Watkins, fears (Another View: "Whose property is life?") that big business will sit on patent rights to prevent commercial exploitation and the alleviation of suffering ignores an important point. Even assuming that a company has some reason for trying to suppress an invention that it has patented, our law embodies a safeguard against such dog-in-a-manger patentees by providing compulsory licences to force them to make their invention available to others on reasonable terms (Patents Act 1977, Section 48).

Why the resentment about the protection of novel and inventive advances in technology? Innovation is a delicate plant, and its cultivation, especially in biotechnology, is vastly expensive. Patents give shelter by providing a much needed incentive to innovate. We discourage innovation at our peril, particularly in healthcare. Our lives, and our children's lives, may depend on it.

Yours faithfully,

A. G. Sheard

Kilburn Strode: European

Patenting Attorneys

London, WC1

20 November