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Synthetic Gene Patents and Promoting Innovation

Congratulations to Dr. J. Craig Venter and Synthetic Genomics, Inc. for their breakthrough in modifying an existing cell with some synthesized genes. The news reports say that they have applied for a patent on their invention (Read the article in the New York Times). The social goal of our system of patents is to reward innovation in the hope of improving our society. Improvements come in small step, building on what is already available in nature or from prior inventions. The innovation of Synthetic Genomics builds on the cells already available in nature for free. If a patent is granted for this innovation, it is only appropriate that the inventors enjoy the rewards of their hard work. However, to keep the process of innovation going, it is also important that the results of this innovation become available for free for subsequent improvements by others. Future innovators should not have to pay for building on Dr. Venter’s innovation. I hope that the Patent Office will be careful to give the same free ride to the future inventors that Dr. Venter has enjoyed on nature. Otherwise, we would have granted a legal monopoly on millions of years of accumulated achievements of nature to the first inventor, and end up strangling, not encouraging, future innovation.