Can you patent DNA?

No. Not if it is natural.

In a decision that could have broad-reaching effects on the future of science and medicine, the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that:

— “A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated.”

— But, synthetically created “strands of nucleotides known as composite DNA (cDNA)” are “patent eligible” because they do not occur naturally.


Our system of patents is badly broken, I think. About the only people I’ve ever heard say otherwise are … wait for it … patent lawyers.

At least this one little part of it is fixed now.

Photo Credit: Josh*m via Compfight cc


  1. #1 Doug Alder
    June 13, 2013

    At last some sanity from the SCOTUS. This is indeed good news.

  2. #2 bks
    June 17, 2013

    Not so fast. SCOTUS has still left almost the same mess as before. The bifurcation between Natural and Artificial is very arbitrary. The difference between DNA and cDNA is not much of a difference.


  3. #3 RickD
    United States
    June 18, 2013

    The “bifurcation” between discovery and invention is not arbitrary, but it does represent the intended boundary between what is patentable and what isn’t.

    The mistake bks is making is thinking that patents are about the structure of what is being patented. It isn’t. Patents are intended to protect inventions, not discoveries. Patents represent a protection of the process.

    The fact that researchers can design molecules that mimic naturally occurring molecules is hardly an intellectual puzzle here.

  4. #4 Chris Winter
    June 30, 2013

    RickD and Doug Alder are right. Consider the precedent: If natural DNA is deemed patentable, why not other natural molecules? How low can we go? RNA? Peptides? Insulin? Gamma globulin? Amino acids? Table salt? (Yeah, the patent on NaCl — if permitted — would be a lucrative one. Of course, that substance was discovered too long ago; I mention it only for purposes of illustration.)

    It all reminds me of an episode from the dawn of the personal computer era, when somebody sued spreadsheet software vendors (Lotus Development, Borland, etc.) on the basis (IIRC) of owning the patent on data organized in rows and columns. Truly insane.

    (There was a case in which Lotus sued Borland. The SCOTUS ruled on that in 1996. It’s not the case I’m thinking of; that took place during the 1980s.)

    Ref: The Software Patent Crisis (1990)

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    June 30, 2013

    I think IBM may hold the patent for having a “concept” implemented as “software.”