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Can One Patent a Natural Law or Phenomenon?

This from the December 1, 2006 issue of Science Magazine – the “Science and Law” column (p.1395-1396):

An article entitled “When Patents Threaten Science” by Lori Andrews, Jordan Paradise, Timothy Holbrook discusses how the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has, in recent years, begun issuing patents for what appear to be basic scientific facts which are embedded in patents for various medical or other processes. At issue here is whether or not such patents violate the spirit and letter of patent law, which is supposed to protect the products of creative labor, not natural facts or laws. Some of these patents have been disputed in the court, even up to the Supreme Court. This article is definitely worth a read to see how the U.S. Patent Office occasionally oversteps its legal boundaries. For a quick summary of some of the problematic patents and cases, see the following:


Patent Number 6,904,421 (2005) “Method for Solving the Traveling Salesman Problem”

Parker v. Flook 437 U.S. 584 (1978)

Gottschalt v. Benson (1972)

O’Reilly v. Morse 56 U.S. 62 (1854)

Note that to view the Science article online, you will need to be a subscriber (or be a faculty or student at a subscribing school). You may also need to do the free online registration to view some of the Court cases on Findlaw.com.

About Ed Eckel

I am a engineering and applied sciences librarian at Western Michigan University.


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