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Toward Intelligent Design for Data Sharing

The US National Academy of Sciences just issued one of its matchless Big Fat Reports, this one on intellectual property rights, patents, and patenting related to genomics and proteomics. Don't nod off; the report came to a couple of intriguing conclusions that are likely to have a big impact on the life sciences. One surprise is this: the conventional wisdom that US patenting has interfered with or somehow prevented academic research, especially in genomics, is wrong. Not so, the report sai

By | November 18, 2005

The US National Academy of Sciences just issued one of its matchless Big Fat Reports, this one on intellectual property rights, patents, and patenting related to genomics and proteomics. Don't nod off; the report came to a couple of intriguing conclusions that are likely to have a big impact on the life sciences. One surprise is this: the conventional wisdom that US patenting has interfered with or somehow prevented academic research, especially in genomics, is wrong. Not so, the report said, basing its declaration on a survey of scientists. The survey found that researchers hardly think about intellectual property rights at all when designing their experiments. That may not be true in the future. Turns out that the reason intellectual property hasn't posed a significant burden to academic researchers is precisely that they hardly think about it. They have been operating under "the erroneous assumption that pre-commercial research is shielded from liability for patent or other intellectual property infringement," the NAS report notes. Apparently that has never really been the case, and a recent Federal Court of Appeals decision involving Duke University explicitly ruled otherwise. The report observes dryly, "It would appear that researchers and their institutions now must pay closer attention to the intellectual property issues involved in their current and future work." The report also urged Congress to think about legislating an exemption from patent infringement rules for researchers who want to work "on" (but not "with") patented inventions. The exemptions would include finding novel uses for the invention--and finding alternatives. The committee also recommended that NIH extend its "Bermuda Rules" to structural biology, and apparently that's going to happen. The rules promote the free exchange of data from large-scale (i.e., "community") projects in genomics. The rules are a major reason we now have massive databases of sequence and other genomic information available any time to anybody anywhere with an Internet connection. It has sometimes been a little unclear just who those rules apply to--or might apply to in future, when sequencing technology is cheap enough for a single lab to accomplish a genome project that might be of wide utility. Princeton president Shirley Tilghman, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, noted at a press conference yesterday that the Bermuda principles have been "extraordinarily successful." She also said that she had just learned that NIH does intend to apply the same policy to structural biology--data will be available right after they are generated. That is likely to be really good news for us all.
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