The Anticommons: BRCA Gene Patenting Controversy in the United States

유전자와 생명의 사유화, 그리고 반공유재의 비극: 미국의 BRCA 인간유전자 특허 논쟁

  • Yi, Doogab (Chemical Heritage Foundation & University of Pennsylvania)
  • Received : 2012.02.09
  • Accepted : 2012.06.13
  • Published : 2012.06.30


This paper examines the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU)'s recent legal challenge on patents held by Myriad Genetics on two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) associated with a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Instead of analyzing the ACLU's objections to the BRCA patents in terms of its legal technicalities and normative ethical principles, this paper seeks to situate this legal case in the broader historical context of the shifting understanding of the relationship between private ownership, economic development, and the public interest in academic sciences. This paper first briefly chronicles a series of scientific developments and key legal decisions involving patenting of life forms, including genetically engineered micro-organisms animals and biological materials of human origins like cell cultures and genes, that led to the US Patent and Trademark Office(USPTO)'s official guidelines on human gene patenting in 2001. At another level, this paper analyzes the expansion of the scope of intellectual property rights in the life sciences in terms of shifting economic and legal assumptions about public knowledge and its role for economic development in the 1970s. I then show how these economic, legal, and ethical ideas that linked private ownership and the public interest have been challenged from the 1990s, calling for revisions in intellectual property laws regarding a wide array of life forms. The tragedy of the anticommons in human gene patenting, according to ACLU, has severely undermined creative scientific activities, medical innovations, access to health care and rights to life among cancer patient groups. ACLU's objection to human gene patenting on several US-constitutional grounds in turn suggests issues regarding intellectual property are critically linked to vital issues pertinent to the creative communities in arts and sciences, such as free exchange of ideas, censorship and monopoly, and free expression and piracy etc.