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Noah Smith

Patent Law Holds Back Science

The rules get in the way of cooperation that would lead to breakthroughs.
I'd like a patent instead of this piece of parchment.

I'd like a patent instead of this piece of parchment.

Photographer: Ander Gillenea/afp/getty images

One of the biggest stories in science right now is the fight over the Crispr patents. Crispr is a gene editing technique that promises to allow previously unthinkable feats of bio-engineering. It was discovered in stages, like most scientific breakthroughs, by multiple teams working at various universities and research institutes around the world. The final, key advancements were made more-or-less simultaneously by two teams of researchers -- one based in California and led by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, the other based at the Broad Institute in Massachusetts and headed by Feng Zhang.

The two teams will probably split the inevitable Nobel Prize. But they are now engaged in a bitter dispute over the patents. The California team filed for a patent first, but the Massachusetts team was the first to be actually granted the patent, since it filed a fast-track application. Crispr will probably create industries worth many billions of dollars, so lawyers are now preparing for an epic battle.