Science Caturday: Supreme Cat Decisions

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I promise I’ll get back to science soon, but the Supreme Cat of the United States (SCOTUS) handed down a few decisions this week that benefit many hoomins. Cheers!

More Bad News for Patent Trolls

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled several software patents invalid because the patents did not cover a detailed process, but an abstract idea. This could place a number of dubious patents in software, technology, and science at risk of being invalidated in the future, too.

It may set a very important precedent for other legal cases involving lawsuits involving “patent trolls”. Currently, the most well-known of these actions has been efforts by Personal Audio to extort money from podcasters by threatening lawsuits based on supposed infringement of patents Personal Audio claims cover podcasting.

A key element of patent trolling is the inherent vagueness of the patent, which allows the concept of infringement to be drawn as widely as possible. The vague patent interpretation that makes patent trolling possible makes them vulnerable to being viewed as too broad, too abstract, or too vague by the courts and the US Patent Office. Indeed, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has reported success with getting the US Patent Office to narrow or invalidate overbroad patents.

This ruling may add another arrow to the quiver of those fighting the abuse of patents to stifle innovation*.

Hat tip to Giles Newton

*And your ability to listen to the WTF Podcast.

Held: Genes are products of nature

Today the US Supreme Court rules that there cannot be patents on genomic DNA information (PDF – 139kb), only modified DNA products like cDNA. Note that the decision was effectively unanimous, the opinion was written by Thomas, and Scalia’s concurrent opinion is essentially an admission of ignorance in the specialty field. I have not had time to read the full opinion, but at initial review this seems like a very reasonable result. Naturally occurring DNA sequences are, well, natural. Sequences modified with intent may be patent eligible. It will be interesting to see in the future if discovery of naturally occurring sequences that are identical to patented sequences modified naively to match a natural variant will invalidate patents.

Myriad’s DNA claim falls within the law of nature exception.Myriad’s principal contribution was uncovering the precise location and genetic sequence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes…Myriad did not create or alter either the genetic information encoded in the BCRA1 and BCRA2 genes or the genetic structure of the DNA. It found an important and useful gene, but groundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy the §101 inquiry…Myriad’s patent descriptions highlight the problem with its claims: They detail the extensive process of discovery, but extensive effort alone is insufficient to satisfy §101’s demands. Myriad’s claims are not saved by the fact that isolating DNA from the human genome severs the chemical bonds that bind gene molecules together. – SCOTUS (PDF -139kb)