Even if 23andMe doesn’t bring its donor selection technique to market, there’s still reason to resist granting such patents in the first place. Patents do more, after all, than incentive innovators to disclose their inventions to the public. When the government confers a patent for a particular invention, it implicitly approves of that invention as an object worthy of exclusive rights. A patent award sends the message that this is an invention whose development should be protected and promoted.
The utility standard in patent law requires that a patented invention be “socially beneficial.” That requirement once contained a morality condition that rendered ineligible for patent protection inventions whose sole use was deemed “injurious to the well-being, good policy, or sound morals of society.” But this morals dimension of patent law’s utility requirement has more recently fallen out of favor. The PTO expressly rejected the argument that “patents should not issue for [human] genes because the sequence of the human genome is at the core of what it means to be human,” and the Supreme Court declined even to consider such morality-based arguments in last summer’s gene patenting case of Myriad Genetics.
Congress should consider amending the patent law to appoint ethical representatives to the PTO. Its present staff, given their alternative professional backgrounds and competing professional responsibilities, cannot reasonably be expected to account for the relevant methodology and literature. But qualified experts could equip the PTO to enlarge the range of arguments that it draws upon to determine whether an invention serves social utility.