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The controversy over genes and patents has exposed widespread public confusion over the relevant meaning of both. Apparently, some people mistake patents as ownership rights and see genes only in their broadest possible context as instruments of heredity.

A patent is a social contract between society and an inventor, originally developed by the Venetians to promote trade and commerce and avoid the accumulation of trade secrets. Today, society grants patents that assign to inventors exclusive commercial rights for their inventions provided they meet all these criteria: An invention must be novel and not obvious. It cannot be known or deduced directly from prior knowledge. An invention must be useful-knowledge itself cannot be patented. A patent must enable others to use the invention by providing specific directions.

The patent system is thus structured and administered to assure the rapid and open dissemination of new knowledge, encourage innovation and promote commerce. In Abraham Lincoln’s words, patents “couple the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”

Nowhere are patents more central to the creative process than in genetic drug development, where human genes and their expressed proteins themselves are developed as therapies. The biotechnology industry in the United States has brought a handful of these crucial new products (recombinant human insulin, to name one of the most familiar) to market and is on the threshold of a bonanza of genetic drugs and vastly greater relief for ill and aging populations around the world.

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