Thursday, October 29, 2009

Doing Philosophy in Public

Lately, I feel that the ivory tower is crumbling. Or at least it is developing some stress fractures. This is a good thing. For too long, the academic world and the real world have been at odds. Academics, intent on fulfilling the career goals, and standardized path of academic achievement, have helped to perpetuate the lay-public's view that academics are isolated, uninvolved, and mostly irrelevant. Academic disputes might be heated, emotionally charged, and the may make or break academic careers, but rarely do these disputes matter to the world at large. As the link above notes, Henry Kissinger correctly noted that the bitterness of academic disputes "is in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject." Indeed, among academics the currency of the trade has often been to find an opponent, attack, and if possible, destroy. But does any of this intellectual parrying matter to anyone, and must this be the future model of the academy -- to provide a sort of Punch and Judy show as occasional tidbits to a bemused public already wary of the goings-on in university halls? Simply put, no. It doesn't need to be like that.

Sometimes, we can step outside this model, seek not only positive collaborations between the academy and the "real" world, but also work to make ourselves relevant to the public in broader ways. This is part of the virtue of applied ethics, and one reason I have been thrilled to be at TU Delft. Here, engagement in the world is part of the goal. Applied ethics means nothing without a world to apply it to, and projects and researchers working on applied ethics in the Dutch technical universities are not only training engineers to think ethically, but also engaged in projects involving policies affecting hundreds of thousands of people. This is as it should be. Never before have I felt more at home in striving for public policy changes based upon my research. Where once my goals to take my research and do something with it might have been met with scorn by entrenched academic establishments, I am now encouraged by an atmosphere that accepts and even embraces the next logical step: change.

Three years ago, when I began to approach the issue of gene patenting, it was more or less just an academic question to me. Yes I felt viscerally that this was an important issue, but I never realized the extent to which it impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world (if not more), or the extent to which others were moved to finally act on the issue. When, two months after my book came out, the ACLU sued Myriad on this very issue, and now with the US dept of Health and Human Services making some progress in suggesting significantly altering gene patenting, I can see that applied ethics must naturally reach out as an academic field into the real world of activism.

I had the great fortune last week to be where the rubber meets the road on this issue, in what could legitimately be called "gene patent week" in New York City. There, I met with the attorneys for the ACLU, as well as a patent attorney who has been a harsh critic of my work, calling me, the ACLU, and other opponents of gene patenting "liars"(though, even now, he admits not having read my book). I met with Luigi Palombi, whose book Gene Cartels came out just recently, and does for the legal case against gene patents what mine does for the ethical case. I met the director of the film "In The Family," Joanna Rudnick, who possesses the BRCA1 mutation that makes her susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and who discovered in documenting her experiences that the patent that Myriad Genetics owns for that gene prevents her and many others from accessing information about their own bodies, from getting second opinions about her tests, and for many women, the prohibitive price of the test prevents even getting the test done in the first place. I met clinicians and researchers, like Debra Leonard and Ellen Matloff, each of whom has personal experience with how gene patents prevent doctors, researchers, and patients from getting access to information that is not only vitally needed, but part of nature, a natural law, and thus not properly owned. I met with Tania Simoncelli and Sandra Park, of the ACLU, who have striven each in her own way to actually end the process of gene patenting. Tania's background is in science, and she has fought for years to get a suit started, and Sandra is an attorney who is fighting valiantly in the courts. I met Dan Ravicher and Chris Hansen, of the Public Patent Foundation and the ACLU, each of whom has staked his organization's reputations on bringing this courageous and necessary suit.

These people humbled me. What began for me as an academic issue is now personal, and a matter of activism. This is not academia, and the rhetoric around the edges of the debate, the name calling, insinuation, and arguing about the meanings of terms and legal rulings must be put into perspective. People are being hurt, and these harms are not academic. They are wrong. Public policy must change. Never before has it been clearer to me that this is not just an issue for debate, but the cusp of something big.

I had the great fortune to meet and interview James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, and I asked him about gene patenting. He opposes it, and he says his opposition was why he was "fired" from the Human Genome Project. He stated in our 45 minute on-camera interview that "something has to give" and that gene patenting cannot continue. It is harming too many people. I value his judgment as a scientist, and his concern as a person came through when he expressed his disdain for the costs associated with a non-inventive test that has been given an exclusive monopoly through patent.

I particularly value the energy, commitment, and involvement of academics, lawyers, clinicians, and counselors -- all those named above and many more unmentioned, who have moved beyond the academic issues involved and sought to change the world because they know that their cause is just. They have staked their reputations, their careers, money, relationships, and futures on pursuing this change, and their commitment should embolden us all. It gives me strength, and makes me thankful that here, applied philosophy means involvement in the world, unashamedly pursuing the good, and making philosophy relevant once again.

Summary of recent events at Biopolitical Times

The good people at the Center for Genetics and Society offer an excellent recap of recent events in the battle over gene patenting. It encapsulates some of the major recent developments I have blogged about here, and includes a link to the GRITtv debate with Quinn and me. There's momentum, there's interest, and very soon, there will start to be decisions one way or another. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Aaron Fellmeth review in Bioethical Inquiry

Although Fellmeth finds the book insufficiently academic, and bemoans my failure to tie up the loose ends of all of the questions raised by gene patenting, he gives some praise:

"Judging by its provocative yet rhetorical title,
informal tone, and modest number of citations to the
work of others, Who Owns You? is clearly not
addressed to the academic or research communities;
nonetheless, it contains a good deal of helpful
information for the lay public relating to the relevant
(and some irrelevant) biology and biochemistry,
intellectual property law, and ethics of gene patenting.
Koepsell’s gift of conversational writing facilitates
communication of complex ideas to the uninitiated.
On the whole, the book explains much of its subject
matter well."

I did set out to write an accessible general introduction to the topic, and I find that people who have read the book are pleased with its style and tone, as well as interested in a topic they knew little about before reading the book. Moreover, I do admit quite clearly near the end of the book that many of the issues raised, including the link between genes and individuals, remain unanswered and outside the scope of the book.

Finally, Fellmeth's review points to a recurring issue, and that is that lawyers and legal scholars who read my arguments generally miss the point I make in elucidating a new theory of the commons, the "commons by necessity," and this is likely due to the positivist trend in legal scholarship. Steven Poole's review in The Guardian at least notes my "quirky" approach to natural law, which is at the heart to my conclusions about the genome being a "commons by necessity." Overall, I am happy with Fellmeth's review because unlike Holman, he is honest and comprehensive about the whole of the work. He approaches the whole book and not just parts of it, and his differences with my conclusions and approach are honest and not apparently tinged with any conflicting interests. Nonetheless, he takes issue with things that are arguable, and alleges that, for instance, patents on DNA cover something sufficiently "altered" to make them patentable. Here, it is clear we disagree, though like Holman, he calls this my "error."

I'm in touch with Fellmeth, and thanked him for the review. As I said to him, my books have met with reviews that range all over the map, but somehow, over time, the ideas I am working on developing, regarding the nature of ideas, property, the commons, and innovation, have benefited from good, honest, open debate. Judging from the positive response I received last week in NYC, and my interactions with the community of people both affected by gene patents personally, and working to eradicate them, I feel good about the future, and my contributions to changing the law.

Friday, October 23, 2009

That was the Week that Was

I have hope. And I have evidence now that hope is worthwhile. This week has been nothing short of amazing. Somehow, everything seems to be happening at once, and now I feel as though the prospects for action to stop gene patenting are good. There is clear momentum, and public support, and a growing group of disparate activists and academics who have somehow begun to convene. In sum, here's what has happened this week:

Monday: I met with Luigi Palombi (see previous posts) and things are in the works now to take this movement international, with real backing and strength. We then attended a screening of Joanna Rudnick's film "In The Family" at Cardozo Law School, and met Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation. I also met Kevin Noonan, who was the lone voice on the other side of the issue, and who is a some-time foil, having critiqued my book (before reading it) on his website -- Patentdocs. He was a gentleman, though, and I hope he'll take part in our film and offer the reasoning behind gene patents.

Tuesday: Taylor Roesch and I interviewed James Watson for our documentary. He delivered some extraordinary sound bites in opposition to gene patenting, and provides unparalleled scientific credibility on the subject given his connection with the human genome's discovery and mapping. Later that evening, we went to another screening of "In The Family" at the Tribeca Cinema, where we were able to film a panel discussion on the legal implications of gene patenting and the ACLU vs. Myriad lawsuit.

Wednesday: I gave my talk at Cardozo Law School, entitled "The Ethical Case Against IP," which we also filmed for the movie. We then went to Harlem where we filmed an excellent interview with Luigi.

Thursday (today): Taylor interviewed me for the documentary. We shot in Central Park, which was brilliant, crisp, and sunny, and the leaves are beginning to turn. It was good to be in the park, even if we were working. I then headed downtown and did a live interview on the Leonard Lopate Show. There's a link to the interview (and all similar press) from my homepage, under "press."

Tomorrow and Monday: I have a call-in interview for WBAI Evening News, and then, perhaps, a moment to breathe. Then Monday, I will debate Gene Quinn on the issue of patents and innovation, and then tape an interview with Laura Flanders of Grit TV.

*UPDATE* here's the GritTV spot, I think it went very nicely.

In sum, the ACLU lawsuit, Luigi's activism in Australia and elsewhere, the recent HHS draft report, and the public's overwhelming support of the movement to eradicate gene patents (when they learn it is happening) give me courage, hope, and strength to continue this work, and seek real and lasting change.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Review in The Guardian, UK

A rather nice review from Steven Poole's "Etcetera non-fiction roundup," Oct 17, 2009, in The Guardian:

"Who Owns You? The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes, by David Koepsell (Wiley-Blackwell, £14.99)

Despite the protester-friendly subtitle, this isn't exactly a gosh-wow exposé of the gene-patenting business, but a tersely polemical investigation of the philosophical, scientific and legal issues. Should biotech companies be able to patent genetic sequences taken from sick individuals and monopolise the profit from them? Can you be said to "own" your genes, and to what extent are they part of you as a person? Some companies have acquired patents on genes that we all share, prompting Koepsell to observe: "The only thing the inventor has done is to point out, as if on a map, where that gene lies in nature."

The author insists at moments on a slightly quirky general account of "natural law", but one doesn't need to buy that to appreciate his fruitful detours into discussions of copyright history or "open source". He finally returns to the analogy with land, arguing that ought to be our shared "commons", and that the patent-rush constitutes a new enclosure."

Friday, October 16, 2009

NYC Media and talks

I'll be in NYC from Oct 18-26, and have a number of media appearances and talks scheduled. I am excited too to be getting together with Luigi Palombi, of Australia, the author of Gene Cartels which makes the legal case against gene patenting and is the most comprehensive work on the legal aspects of the subject I have read. Finally, Taylor Roesch and I will do some filming for the documentary we are producing about the issue. It will be a busy and exciting week!

In addition to the media listed below, I will be speaking at Cardozo Law School on Oct 21, at noon, room 205 on "The Ethical Case Against IP" and then debating my friend Gene Quinn of on the the issue "Patents: Competing views of Innovation" at noon on Oct 26 also at Cardozo. Both events will be open to the public.

“Leonard Lopate”
Interview Time: 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM LIVE

Friday October 23 – BY PHONE –WBAI-FM
“WBAI Evening News with Andrea Sears”

Monday October 26 –IN STUDIO at Grit TV (Free Speech TV)
“Grit TV with Laura Flanders”
Nationally Syndicated TV / Radio
Interview time: 1:30 PM – 2:00 PM

Friday, October 9, 2009

Great report from US-DHHS

So, it seems that the US Dept. of Health and Human Services will recommend de-fanging almost completely gene patents as they are presently granted in the US. Essentially, they have reached the same conclusions that I reach in my book regarding the nature and utility of gene patents and effects in creating patent thickets. Because the report is not available yet, I cannot say whether they address any of the ethical issues involved. Here's part of the conclusion reported at IPWatchdog, where my friend Gene Quinn is naturally quite alarmed by what I consider to be a fantastic step forward:

"For the most part, patents covering genetic tests and related licensing practices do not appear to be causing wide or lasting barriers to patient access. However, the case studies and public comments documented several situations in which patient access to genetic tests has been impeded for segments of the population—especially indigent patients—when these tests are offered by an exclusive provider or a limited number of providers, a practice directly enabled by current patenting and licensing practices."

I look forward to reading the final report and hoping that Congress acts as recommended.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Patents: tools of state socialism

the following reasoning is met with deafening silence at IP Watchdog, where clueless patent attorneys accuse me of socialism, communism, etc...

How are patents a free market device? Shouldn’t capitalism embrace free markets? My love for free markets is what drives me to hate patents, since they skew markets, are a state-granted privilege accorded for no better reason than beating someone else to filing something with bureaucrats, and inhibit free, unfettered competition, which is what capitalism ought to encourage rather than hinder.

Patents are more socialist than capitalist. They get the state into the business of marketplaces, of determining what technologies ought to succeed or fail, of boosting patented tech over non-patented tech, rather than encouraging the market to select for the best products and drive pricing. It’s a lot closer to five-year plans than what I envision, which is a market without any state involvement at all.