The pervasive intertwining of public and private interests makes molecular biology a particularly useful focal point for considering the effect of intellectual property rights on the dissemination and use of research tools. The potential implications of advances in molecular biology for human health raise the stakes of getting the balance between public and private right, particularly when public attention is riveted on the rising costs of health care. Which approaches to handling intellectual property will best serve the goals of fostering continued scientific discovery and ensuring adequate incentives for commercial development of discoveries to promote human health?

This report seeks to shed light on that question from three angles (following the structure of the workshop itself). The first session presented legal, economic, and sociologic perspectives on the issue of intellectual property protection and access to research tools. Rebecca Eisenberg provides a legal orientation to the problem of intellectual property rights in research tools and reviews legal and commercial developments of the last 15 years that have made intellectual property issues particularly prominent in molecular biology. Drawing from his collaboration with Roberto Mazzoleni, Richard Nelson reviews and critiques various theories about the economic costs and benefits of patenting. Stephen Hilgartner presents his observations on differences in the extent of intellectual property protection in the life sciences and on the role of patents in changing the degree of secrecy among biomedical researchers.

The second section was the heart of the workshop: the case studies. The case studies were chosen to illustrate approaches to the protection of intellectual property that have been used in different contexts by different types of institutions. An important goal of the workshop was to examine the consequences of those approaches from different institutional perspectives. The following cases studies were chosen:

  • Cohen-Boyer recombinant DNA technology

    A patented research tool, nonexclusively licensed with low fees.

  • Partial cDNA sequences, or ESTs

    Three models for disseminating unpatented research tools.

  • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology and Taq polymerase

    A patented research tool for which licensing agreements were controversial.

  • DNA and protein sequencing instrumentations

    Research tools for which strong patent protection promoted broad access.

  • Research tools in drug discovery

    Intellectual property protection of complex biological systems.

By design, the case studies present differences that caution against facile generalizations about ideal practices that should be implemented through uniform rules. Nonetheless, a number of interesting themes emerged, and their

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement