Are plants and animals, seeds and bacteria, parts of the human body, and even genes themselves patentable objects, just like technical inventions?
Current and future members of the European Union (EU) and all current or future members of the European Patent Convention (EPC) find themselves confronted with this question. Controversy rages around an EU directive (98/44/EC; Legal protection of Biotechnological Inventions) which allows patents on human genes, on parts of the human body and on plants and animals.
This directive should have already been put into national law in the EU member states by July 2000. However, as of the end of 2002, only 6 of the current 15 member states have decided to take this step. On the other hand France and Luxembourg have spoken out explicitly against the patenting of genes. The German government as well has called for an overhaul of the directive. Medical associations, farmers, development and environmental organisations have all spoken out against the implementation of the directive.
However, the European Patent Office (EPO) has already been applying the directive since 1999 thus including countries, which are not even members of the EU. The influence of the directive has thus been extended to include countries like Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey (which are all members of the EPC), without giving these countries an opportunity to discuss the patentability of life. And four more countries (Lithuania, Latvia,, Poland and Romania) are set to become members of the EPC as well. European patents are also valid in Albania and Macedonia, those being countries of extension, though not having been invited yet to become full member countries.
This paper is to inform about the current status of the debate, to highlight options for action and to show the concrete consequences of Patents on Life. A main target group of this documentation are those countries which are to become new members of either the EU or the EPC. In the opinion of experts in patent law, countries with a weaker economic development might have to endure strong disadvantages through the proliferation of patentability. Therefore it is important that governments in the respective countries become active and join countries within the EU and the EPC to work towards a revision of the EU directive. Even the European Parliament who the passed directive in 1998, demanded in November 2002 that the Commission change the directive so that human genes can no longer be patented. The Council of Europe has also spoken out against patents on living beings and genes numerous times.