Quite surprisingly, Michael Crichton has an excellent op-ed in the Sunday Times on the insane overreach of US patent law, the limits of which are to be tested today before the Supreme Court. In dispute is the increasingly common practice of pharmaceutical companies, research labs and individual scientists of patenting specific medical procedures or tests. Today’s case deals specifically with a basic diagnostic procedure patented by three doctors in 1990 that helps spot deficiency in a certain kind of Vitamin B by testing a patient’s folic acid levels.
Under current laws, a small royalty must be paid not only to perform the test, but to even mention it. That’s right, writing it down or even saying it out loud requires payment. Which means that I am in violation simply for describing it above. As is the AP reporter whose story filled me in on the details of the case. And also Michael Crighton for describing the test in his column (an absurdity acknowledged in his title: “This Essay Breaks the Law”). Need I (or may I) say more?
And patents can reach far beyond medical procedures that prevent diseases. They can be applied to the diseases themselves, even to individual genes. Crichton:
…the human genome exists in every one of us, and is therefore our shared heritage and an undoubted fact of nature. Nevertheless 20 percent of the genome is now privately owned. The gene for diabetes is owned, and its owner has something to say about any research you do, and what it will cost you. The entire genome of the hepatitis C virus is owned by a biotech company. Royalty costs now influence the direction of research in basic diseases, and often even the testing for diseases. Such barriers to medical testing and research are not in the public interest. Do you want to be told by your doctor, “Oh, nobody studies your disease any more because the owner of the gene/enzyme/correlation has made it too expensive to do research?”
It seems everything — even “laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas” (AP) — is information that someone can own. It goes far beyond the digital frontiers we usually talk about here. Yet the expansion of the laws of ownership — what McKenzie Wark calls “the relentless abstraction of the world” — essentially digitizes everything, and everyone.
Law professors at the University of Chicago have launched an experimental faculty blog to connect with students, the legal community, and the world at large. They’ve chosen a good moment to jump into the public sphere, when the Supreme Court is in flux. I wouldn’t be surprised if this spurred similar developments at other universities.
The University of Chicago School of Law has always been a place about ideas. We love talking about them, writing about them, and refining them through open, often lively conversation. This blog is just a natural extension of that tradition. Our hope is to use the blog as a forum in which to exchange nascent ideas with each other and also a wider audience, and to hear feedback about which ideas are compelling and which could use some re-tooling.
Though a growing number of scholars have embraced blogging, the academy as a whole has been loathe to take treat it as anything more than a dalliance. But a few more high profile moves like the one in Chicago and university boards may start clamoring to jump in. Perhaps then there can begin a serious discussion about legitimizing blogging as a form of scholarly production, and even as a kind of peer review. It’s not that all academics should be expected (or should want) to become high-profile public intellectuals. Fundamentally, academic blogging should be considered as an extension of “office hours,” a way to extend the dialogue with students and other faculty.
But there’s a definite benefit for the public when authoritative voices start blogging about what they know best. It’s refreshing to read sober, deeply informed reflections on the Miers nomination and surrounding questions of judicial philosophy written by people who know what they’re talking about. It helps us to parse the news and to tune out some of the more worthless punditry that goes on, both in mainstream media and in the blogosphere. Less noise, more signal.
Of course, experts can get noisy too. I was thrilled when Paul Krugman began writing his column for the NY Times — here was someone with a deep grasp of economics and a talent for explaining it in a political context. But as Krugman’s audience has grown, so has his propensity to blow off partisan steam. To me at least, his value as a public intellect has waned.