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Biotechnology is a field of technology of growing importance in which inventions may have a significant effect on our future, particularly in medicine, food, agriculture, energy and protection of the environment. The science of biotechnology concerns living organisms, such as plants, animals, seeds and microorganisms, as well as biological material, such as, enzymes, proteins and plasmids (which are used in “genetic engineering”).
In recent times, scientists have developed processes to modify the genetic composition of living organisms (genetic engineering). For example, the modified microorganisms created by Chakrabarty (an inventor in the United States of America) were able to break down components of oil pollution in oceans and rivers. The patent on these microorganisms was the subject of a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court, in which modified microorganisms were recognized as patentable subject matter. The Court noted that the laws of nature, physical phenomena and abstract ideas were not patentable. The claimed invention, however, was not directed to an existing natural phenomenon but to new bacteria with markedly different characteristics from any found in nature. The invention therefore resulted from the inventor’s ingenuity and effort and could be the subject of a patent. The list of industries using biotechnology has expanded to include health care, agriculture, food processing, bioremediation, forestry, enzymes, chemicals, cosmetics, energy, paper making, electronics, textiles and mining. This expansion of applications has resulted from innovations that have led to significant economic activity and development.

Need to protect biotechnological inventions

As in other fields of technology, there is a need for legal protection in respect of biotechnological inventions. Such inventions are creations of the human mind just as much as other inventions, and are generally the result of substantial research, inventive effort and investment in sophisticated laboratories. Typically, enterprises engaged in research only make investments if legal protection is available for the results of their research. As with other inventions and industries, the need for investment in research and development efforts creates an obvious need for the protection of biotechnological inventions.
This need is not only in the interest of inventors and their employers, but also in the public interest of promoting technological progress. Modern, flexible intellectual property systems and policies have contributed to fostering investment needed to establish biotechnology industries creating tangible products. Flexible intellectual property policies can play a role in favoring stable legal environments conducive to public/private partnerships, investment and other economic activity needed to spread biotechnological innovations to more countries.
The patenting of biotechnology innovations has been accompanied by controversy, as has the use of some of these new innovations. Policy makers of all countries, however, have been careful to avoid extending patent rights to things, as they exist in nature or to natural phenomena. A new plant species discovered in the wild, for instance, cannot be patented and neither can laws of nature. In each country, the laws on patentability of biotechnological inventions need to be consulted to learn the availability of patent protection and its scope.
When considering these issues, one also needs to recognize that legal regimes other than patent systems are typically relied upon to address other public interests, such as the environmental or medical safety of products, efficacy of products, and unfair competition that may occur in the assertion of patent rights. The confluence of this new technology with legal and regulatory systems makes biotechnology an evolving and dynamic component of intellectual property law.