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Germany debates gene patents

Lawmakers introduce a bill to grant commercial rights on genes but allow research use

March 19, 2004
Ned Stafford
The Scientist

A law has been introduced in Germany's Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, that would make it easier for researchers and companies to obtain patents in the field of biotechnology and would finally bring Germany into compliance with a European Directive issued in 1998.

The bill, which was given a first reading last week (March 11) in the Bundestag, was introduced by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder';s ruling coalition of the Social Democrat and Green parties. It would grant commercial rights for gene sequences but allow scientists free use of those patented sequences for research purposes.

“It is an improvement on the present state of the law,” Joseph Straus, managing director of the Max Planck Institute for Intellectual Property, Competition and Tax Law, told The Scientist, “and it would bring Germany in line with EU guidelines.”

He said a declaration calling for a new patent law, made early last year, would be valid for the current proposed law. The signers of that declaration were the Max Planck Society, the German Research Foundation, the German Association of Biotechnology Industries, the German Chemical Industry Association, and the German Association of Research-based Pharmaceutical Companies (VFA).

Straus said the EU directive mandated that member nations adopt new patent laws by July 30, 2000. However, the only nations to have done so are the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Finland, Denmark, Portugal, and Greece, he said. The European Union has taken legal action against eight others.

This is not the first time Germany has attempted to comply with the EU rules. In early 2002, Greenpeace, the German Medical Association, and Misereor, an overseas development agency of the Catholic Church, teamed up to help kill a proposed bill that appeared to be headed for passage.

Those opposed say that most biotech patents are based on “discoveries” of matter that already exists and not on “inventions.”

A Social Democrat Party press spokesman told The Scientist that legislative hearings will be conducted on the proposed bill for possible amendments and that it will be “at least several weeks” before it is brought to the floor of the Bundestag for a final vote.

Some members of the Green Party have already called for amendments to a provision in the proposed bill that would give the patent holder of a specific gene sequence the commercial rights on any future applications tied to the sequence, even if those applications are not outlined in the original patent.

Rolf Hoemke, spokesman for the pharmaceutical industry's VFA, told The Scientist he believes the intent of the 1998 EU directive was to grant commercial rights on any applications for a patented gene sequence.

Drug companies must invest heavily in research and the “patent rights should go to those who have done the work,” he said.

Links for this article

Directive 98/44/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 July 1998 on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions, July 30, 1998.!celexapi!prod!CELEXnumdoc&lg=en&numdoc=31998L0044&model=guichett

Joseph Straus

German Research Foundation

German Association of Biotechnology Industries

German Chemical Industry Association

German Association of Research-based Pharmaceutical Companies

“Industrial property: Eight member states referred to court for failure to implement directive on legal protection of biotechnological inventions, European Union press release,” July 10, 2003.|0|RAPID&lg=EN

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