Thursday, July 13, 2006

Patents in Open Source Science

Anonymous brings up an interesting point about the usefulness of patents in open source science, specifically in the case of a pending Chinese patent for the synthesis of praziquantel, an anti-schistosomiasis drug:
Why would you "avoid" patents when they are an outstanding (and often overlooked) source of technical information? Assuming (quite possibly incorrectly) that this process (which is the subject of only a pending patent and only in China) might really be useful to this quest - why in the world would you avoid it? Under what conditions might you access this technology? Might simply talking with the patent applicants yield new information - even that working with them is desirable (and may accelerate delivery of this critically needed compound)? Humble suggestion: keep all eyes on the prize, be innovative, don't cast anything aside because it doesn't fit with preconceived notions...

I'll give my opinion and then I'd like to hear from others (especially from the Synaptic Leap folks) who come across this issue.

Basically, the purpose of a patent is to prevent people from doing things without permission (generally for a fee) from the patent holder. That's what gives patents monetary and strategic value. It may be possible to get a special license from the patent holder for humanitarian applications but that sounds like an added layer of complexity and cost that is not present in open source public domain solutions.

The other issue, in my experience as a chemist, is that chemical patents are often written in a way that makes it difficult to reproduce some of the experiments. There are generally some detailed examples but much of the content tends to be written to be as broad as possible, covering reactions and conditions that have not been done. I've been through the patent writing process with attorneys a few times and it is a very different mindset compared to writing an article with the aim of truly sharing knowledge. I would be curious to see the details of this Chinese patent application but not curious enough to buy it - maybe someone has looked at it and can comment.

Concerning the issue of this being a Chinese patent application and thus not applicable to the rest of the world, that is a dangerous assumption. The only way to know is to search for similar filings in other countries. I would think that there is a good chance that there is a US filing if there is a Chinese one. But different countries have different timelines for disclosing patent filings. Basically it would require some legwork to really know.


At 6:31 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

This is an unexamined application which may or may not become a patent some day (might be rejected once examined, non payment of fees, etc). All it really does is establish priority and stop other people from patenting exactly the same thing since there would be prior art.


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