Owning Life: Biopatenting and Bioprospecting
In the 2008 movie “Repo: The Genetic Opera”, organ replacement has become so easy and commonplace that you can pay for such a procedure on a line of credit from GeneCo., the company that controls the organ replacement market. However, just as a house paid for by a loan extended by a bank, your new organ is owned by GeneCo. until you have paid off this loan—and if you don’t make your payments, it will be repossessed.
This film is dystopian due to the horrific absurdity of the idea that a human life is little different from a house, car, or big screen television; just as one buys food, shelter, or the luxuries and conveniences of modern living, so too does one buy the convenience of living.
It’s a strange question to ask if life can be owned. Human slavery is generally viewed as abhorrent, yet we are said to ‘own’ our animal companions. Parents are sometimes treated as owning their children (in some ways having children is like having pets) and still other times it is the government that owns them—everyone owns juveniles except themselves. But then there are less obvious ways to ‘own’ someone. There’s a phrase that is used when you rely heavily on someone or are deeply in their debt, “I own you.” There is also the more abstract reality of intellectual property rights (IPRs)!!!definition!!! In any context, ownership implies an element of control over the thing or being which is owned.
There has been much debate over intellectual property rights in recent years, largely revolving around digital media copyright. While the issue of artists having control over and being compensated for their work is certainly relevant, it isn’t nearly as interesting or pertinent as the privatization and commercialization of life. ‘Biopatenting’ is the patenting of biological material or processes, covering everything from bacterium to cirrhosis-resistant livers (eventually). The idea of owning biological material has long been controversial, and continues to be, but good cases can be made for biopatenting.
Patents are just one method of protecting IPRs, and they serve a very specific purpose. Patent laws are designed to promote competition and investment in technological research; patent holders are given a monopoly over their invention for a certain period (17 years in the United States) during which time they hold exclusive legal rights to regulate its accessibility and use (McNally and Wheale 222). After 17 years the patent expires, and their invention is opened up for competitors’ use. According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, patentable items must be inventions (man-made), be reasonably unique or non-obvious, and must have some utility; items that cannot be patented include laws of nature, physical phenomena, abstract ideas, products of nature, and inventions that could only be useful toward development of atomic weapons. Without the strict ownership provided by patents, inventors and researchers...