(This post was the subject of Retcon #6, which addressed the Supreme Court’s decision in the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad case.)
No, that’s not a typo in the title. I’m referring to Genetiks, the graphic novel from Archaia Entertainment. The protagonist of the book works for a genetic research company (the titular Genetiks), which requires each of its employees to submit a symbolic cell to the company. The protagonist’s cell is used in a human DNA sequencing project, reminiscent of Celera Genomics’s private competitor to the Human Genome Project. Apparently it is the first of its kind in the fictional world of the book, and after the protagonist’s DNA is completely sequenced he is told that, because the company now owns his genetic sequence, it now effectively owns him and everything he will ever do or produce.
This immediately raises a host of questions. Can an employer commercially exploit the genetic information of its employees without further compensation? Does sequencing someone’s DNA mean that you own it, in some sense? Does owning that DNA sequence confer any rights over the person? And can DNA sequences be owned in the first place?
I. Commercial Exploitation
The answer to the first question is a pretty straightforward yes. To begin with, people don’t have a property right in their own body parts. Moore v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 51 Cal.3d 120 (1990). Once an employee gives up a cell to the employer, that employer can pretty well do what they want with it, including exploit it for commercial gain, and the employee is not entitled to a cut. But what’s more, the employee almost certainly signed a contract indicating that the cell and any resulting intellectual property rights or income were being exchanged for employment with the company. Similar contracts are signed all the time, whereby employees agree to assign rights in creative works or inventions to their employers in exchange for employment.
II. Gene Patents
Genetiks makes a pretty broad leap from “sequenced DNA” to “ownership.” In reality, there’s a bit more to it than that. There is no property right in a bare DNA sequence. Such a sequence is simply a fact. But if a sequence is observed to be new, useful, and nonobvious, then it may qualify as a patentable invention (NB: in the United States inventions are defined as both inventions and discoveries under 35 U.S.C. § 100(a)). This might be the case if, for example, the sequence is the sequence for a particular gene, which is what so-called “gene patents” are about. But that still requires applying for a patent; it’s not automatic the way copyright protection is.
III. The Scope of Gene Patents
What gene patents definitely don’t do, however, is confer any inherent rights over the person that the gene was originally sequenced from or any person that the gene is found in. First, such patents typically claim isolated DNA molecules with a particular sequence, which don’t exist in human beings, even humans with the genes in question. Second, it has long been Patent Office policy—now codified in the law—that no patent may claim an invention “directed to or encompassing a human organism.” Third, even if all that failed, the 13th Amendment would almost certainly have something to say about it.
IV. Are Human Genes Patentable?
But all of this may be a moot point. The Supreme Court is current considering that question (“are human genes patentable?”) in the case of Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. The oral arguments were heard earlier this month, and the case has the potential to upend the biotechnology sector in the United States. I won’t try to read the oral argument tealeaves, but I will say that—in general—recent Supreme Court patent cases have not been especially favorable to inventors and patent owners.
Genetiks is a good read, even though it rests on an extremely shaky legal premise. You pretty much have to assume that it takes place in an alternate universe with a very different legal system, despite its apparent similarity to our own world and overall realistic tone.