Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Amicus Brief Filed By Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Argues That Funk Bros. Is About Obviousness, Not Patent Eligibility

Alnylam Pharmaceuticals is a biopharmaceutical company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts focused on developing synthetic "small interfering RNAs" (SiRNAs) as therapeutic agents. It has filed an amicus curiae brief in the Myriad gene patent case (AMP v. US PTO) that makes a number of insightful points, particularly in attempting to "debunk myths of Funk Brothers Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co."

Funk Brothers is generally assumed to be a case about patent eligibility. However, Alnylam points out that Funk Brothers was decided by the Supreme Court in 1948, prior to the enactment of the 1952 patent statute and thus prior to 35 USC 101, which is the statutory basis for the patent eligibility doctrine. Prior to 1952, the Court used the term “invention” to refer to "inventiveness," a concept that subsequent to 1952 and the enactment of 35 USC 103 we refer to as "nonobviousness." The Court in Funk Brothers found the claimed subject matter was not the “product of invention,” but Alnylam argues that post-1952 this statement should be interpreted a finding of obviousness, not patent ineligibility.

I have always found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a principled distinction between the inventions claimed in Funk Brothers and Diamond V. Chakrabarty that would justify finding only Dr. Chakrabarty's invention patent eligible. In Funk Brothers, the alleged invention was a novel and useful combination, in a single inoculant, of naturally occurring microorganisms in a combination that did not exist naturally. Chakrabarty’s invention was a novel and useful combination, in a single microorganism, of naturally occurring plasmids in a combination that did not exist naturally. It is important to bear in mind that Chakrabarty's invention did not involve any genetic engineering at the molecular level.

In Funk Brothers, it has been pointed out that while the combination of bacteria in a single inoculant was novel, the bacteria function in the same manner and have the same characteristics as they would have in nature. But the same can be said regarding the plasmids Dr. Chakrabarty introduced into a single microorganism. These were naturally occurring plasmids, and in the claimed microorganism they encoded the exact same proteins, and performed the exact same function as they did in their natural state.

In a nutshell, Funk Brothers was a novel combination of naturally occurring bacteria capable of achieving novel and useful function, with the bacteria functioning in the same manner as they do in nature. Chakrabarty was a novel combination of naturally occurring plasmid DNA capable of achieving novel and useful function, with the plasmid DNA functioning in the same manner as they do in nature. I don't see how one invention can be patent eligible and the other not. However, if Funk Brothers was really decided based on obviousness rather than patent eligibility, as argued by Alnylam, the two decisions are easily reconciled.

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