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Patently unjust


Patents: Myths and Reality

By Vandana Shiva

Price: Rs 200 (paperback)

Intellectual property as the new target of colonial hegemony through instruments such as the WTO and TRIPS with the US as the biggest perpetrator of monopolistic trade in human knowledge and life forms -- Nothing new, coming from the multifaceted Vandana Shiva, but the story does not end there. Her latest book sets out in simple terms what it means to live under the new ``patents'' regime dominated by profiteering multinationals which will stop at nothing if it means making money.

Patents were not an everyday concern, the book says, till the US Supreme Court's decision to treat life as an invention and allow the US Patent Office to grant patents on life. Along with this, the introduction of patents and intellectual property rights in the Uruguay round of GATT implied that nothing was sacred anymore. As John Moore will testify. Moore was undergoing treatment for spleen cancer at the University of California hospital. In 1984, the doctor who was treating him, patented his cell line without his consent. The `Mo' cell line was sold to Sandoz and the estimated cost of the cell line's ultimate worth has exceeded $3 billion. When a hapless Moore, who was described as patent number 4,438,032, challenged his doctor's action, the Californ ia court of appeals found it ironical that Moore could not own his own tissue.

Shiva does not use this example to scare us -- patenting of life forms is only one of the horrors permitted under the new world order. She regrets the fact that India's proposed Patent Law does not use any of the safeguards that TRIPs (Trade Related Inte llectual Property Rights Agreement) itself provides. TRIPs has clauses which countries can use to exclude patents on life forms which India at least is not using to its advantage. Shiva lists the history of patents and chills us with anecdotes of ``onco' ' mouse -- the first mammalian patent granted to DuPont for a mouse where infected chicken and human genes had been engineered into the mouse's permanent gene line to give it cancer and of Tracy, a sheep now called a mammalian cell bioreactor, because th rough the introduction of human genes her mammary glands have been engineered to produce a protein useful to the pharmaceutical industry. The famous Dolly is the result of the replication of Tracy by Pharmaceutical Proteins Ltd (PPL).

A US firm has a patent on all umbilical cord cells from foetuses and newborn babies and in 1994, Amgen bought the patent for the obesity gene from Rockefeller University for $90 million. Patents for the cell line from the Hagahai people of Papua New Guin ea rest with the US Government. TRIPs has sought to globalise US style patent laws and this universalisation of patents to cover all matter is what concerns us most as it threatens to invade our lives, our forests, gardens and homes. Now you can understa nd why basmati, neem and turmeric patents have been sought and why countries such as India are not in a position to resist these advances.

Indian patent laws firmly rejected patents on products and the Patent Act of 1970 was committed to granting patents to encourage inventions and to secure that the inventions worked in India and they were not granted merely to enable ``patentees to enjoy a monopoly for the importation of the patented article.'' Food and medicine could not be monopolised and this was achieved by not allowing patents for products themselves but for the process or method of manufacture. This has helped in drugs being availa ble cheaply in India, something which may not last very long.

The book dismisses all reasons to support a TRIPs regime and sets out to explain that patents are necessary for the US which is in search of fresh global markets. Patents have become the most important asset of the US and a growing export component. In 1 994, US trade in intellectual property comprised 50 per cent of all exports. However, this trade could only take place if all countries could be forced to frame intellectual property laws on the lines of the US law. And this is how intellectual property was brought to WTO. ``As the fossil fuel era gives way to the era of biology, patents on living material become the means of controlling both the raw material and the markets of the Third world,'' Vandana Shiva warns.

She explains how patents can harm communities whose traditional knowledge bases are being sought to be captured and calls for resistance to the WTO order and a more equitable sharing of resources which respects indigenous knowledge systems. She talks of the inherent conflict between the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which recognises the sovereign right of states over their biological and genetic resources while TRIPs creates a global private property regime. She calls for a review of TRIPs to make sure that the changes are made in it to make it consistent with the CBD.

The book takes you through a brief history of patents, the dangers inherent in the new TRIPs regime as well as threats to the farmer's age old system of seed exchange and breeding and selection and provides an introduction to the new form of colonisation that is threatening our very life support systems. The Indian Government is certainly not justified in rushing through the various laws it has prepared in its haste to be part of this new regime. The book gives us enough reason to worry -- the foolishne ss of our Government and the Machiavellian tactics of the US to bring the developing countries to their knees once again. As Vandana Shiva concludes, ``Patents will be the prisms of our age and how we share our policy will shape the patent laws. If our p olitical and economic systems descend into a free fall for piracy and predation, patent laws will promote biopiracy and..institutionalise bioserfdom and intellectual slavery.'' A warning that must not go unheeded.

Meena Menon

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