By Seán Finan
Last week, a patent application in India was refused, apparently on the basis that the invention under review could have been used to counterfeit money. This practice of denying patents on the basis of public policy or morality is almost as old as the practice of granting patents. For example, the State of Monopolies was enacted in England in 1624 to prohibit monopolies where they would be “mischievous to the State”. In many other jurisdictions, patents on food and medicines were prohibited, on the basis that the public good served by these products outweighed any claims of monopoly rights by the inventor. The other approach is preferred in the US. Cases like Diamond v Chakrabarty removed much of the normative question from American patent law and it has been strongly argued that a patent application “is not an ethical event.”
Whether a patent can be refused on the basis of morality is a difficult enough question, but the problem is compounded once the “morality” in question is not confined to a single jurisdiction. The harmonization of patent law across Europe in the last fifty years has forced the European Patent Office (EPO) to consider how to make a moral judgement on behalf of all the contracting states to the European Patent Convention. Its approach has been neither consistent between cases nor consistent with the underlying treaties. I would like to give a quick sketch of the contrast between the European legal framework and its manifestation in the decisions of the EPO.