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Why are we copyrighting science?

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 16 September 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4738
  1. Varuni de Silva, senior lecturer in psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, Colombo, Sri Lanka,
  2. Raveen Hanwella, senior lecturer in psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo
  1. Correspondence to: V de Silva varunidesilva2{at}

    Looking for a rating scale to screen for depression, we realised that many commonly used scales were under copyright and that researchers have to pay for their use.

    Rating scales are an integral part of research in psychiatry. Most psychiatry diagnoses do not have external validating criteria, so scales help in structured gathering of information and in use of standard criteria for diagnosis. Scales are also used to assess patients’ levels of functioning, quality of life, satisfaction with services, and burden on carers. Of the many hundred scales developed for use in medicine only a few gain wide acceptance among researchers. Scales used in many specialties, such as the general health questionnaire and the mini-mental state examination, have been copyrighted. Some copyrighted scales are first published in journals and are available free to researchers. However, once a rating scale is accepted by the scientific community an updated version is copyrighted, a process similar to “evergreening” of drugs whereby patent periods are extended by licensing them for different indications.

    Intellectual property rights in the form of copyright of scientific publications and patents of drugs and genetic material restrict access to vital scientific knowledge. Every time researchers transfer copyright of publications they are agreeing to regulation of access to scientific discoveries made by them. This limits the public benefiting from scientific discovery and delays progress of science.

    Patents have been issued on genetic material. Genes are products of nature and therefore should not be considered as patentable. But patents have been granted for modified genes. Gene tests for diagnosing illness caused by diseased genes are patentable too. So are stem cell lines used to treat illness. The case of the BRCA genes, which act as a tumour suppressor, illustrates how close we are to the edge. Mutations of the BRCA genes are linked to breast cancer and ovarian cancer, and tests can be carried out to identify mutations. The company Myriad Genetics held two patents for the diagnosis of mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and carries out the genetic screening test, which is very costly. The patent prevented any other laboratory from doing the test for a lesser cost. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation filed a lawsuit charging that patents on two human genes associated with breast and ovarian cancer are unconstitutional and invalid. On 29 March 2010 a New York federal court ruled that the patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are invalid (BMJ 2010;340:c1870, doi:10.1136/bmj.c1870).

    Extreme commercialisation of science can lead to patents on medical procedures and techniques. Companies can patent new surgical techniques and other procedures, and we may end up paying royalty fees every time a particular surgical technique is used. Recognising the implications of such action the American Medical Association has expressed its concerns in a document titled Ethical Issues in Patenting of Medical Procedure and has concluded that it is unethical for doctors to seek, secure, or enforce patents on medical procedures.

    The scientific community is reacting to the increasing commercialisation of science. All genome sequences generated by the human genome project have been deposited into GenBank, a public database that is freely accessible by anyone. SNP Consortium, a collaboration involving the Wellcome Trust, leading academic centres, and 13 pharmaceutical and technological companies, has identified and mapped 1.5 million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that have been made publicly available to researchers over the internet. (SNPs can alter our sensitivity to drugs or our susceptibility to diseases.) Legal means have also been used to protect the rights of the public, as in the case of the BRCA genes. Organisations such as the US National Institutes of Health and the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust insist on open access to publication resulting from research funded by them. Outside the medical sciences, computer software developers are challenging commercial software by developing open source software.

    The fundamental philosophy of Western science is sharing knowledge. In some non-Western medical systems knowledge is closely guarded and handed down from teacher to student, a practice that has resulted in loss of much important knowledge.

    Patenting provides a strategy for protecting inventions without secrecy. While it is a useful tool for protecting investments in industry, we need to rethink its role in science. Can we consider health and science as commodities? Countries that regard health as a basic human right provide universal, free health care for their citizens. It appears that scientific knowledge originating from these countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, is more readily shared. Their scientific journals provide more open access. Countries that regard health as a commodity are more likely to view scientific discovery too as a commercial opportunity.

    Although those who consider science as a commodity are willing to invest in research and development, much medical research is still carried out by non-profit organisations using public money. It is only right that such knowledge is freely shared. This is possible because academic scientists still consider the prestige of discovery more important than monetary reward.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4738