William & Mary Law Review


This Article explores the U.S. "patent first, ask questions later" approach to determining what subject matter should receive patent protection. Under this approach, the US. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO or the Agency) issues patents on "anything under the sun made by man," and to the extent a patent's subject matter is sufficiently controversial, Congress acts retrospectively in assessing whether patents should issue on such inventions. This practice has important ramifications for morally controversial biotechnology patents specifically, and for American society generally. For many years ajudicially created "moral utility" doctrine served as a type of gatekeeper of patent subject matter eligibility. The doctrine allowed both the USPTO and courts to deny patents on morally controversial subject matter under the fiction that such inventions were not "useful." The gate, however, is currently untended. A combination of the demise of the moral utility doctrine, along with expansive judicial interpretations of the scope of patent-eligible subject matter, has resulted in virtually no basis on which the USPTO or courts can deny patent protection to morally controversial, but otherwise patentable, subject matter. This is so despite position statements by the Agency to the contrary. Biotechnology is an area in which many morally controversial inventions are generated. Congress has been in react-mode following the issuance of a stream of morally controversial biotech patents, including patents on transgenic animals, surgical methods, and methods of cloning humans. With no statutory limits on patent eligibility, and with myriad concerns complicating congressional action following a patent's issuance, it is not Congress, the representative of the people, determining patent eligibility. Instead, it is patent applicants, scientific inventors, who are deciding matters of high public policy through the contents of the applications they file with the USPTO. This Article explores how the United States has come to be in this position, exposes latent problems with the 'patent first" approach, and considers the benefits and disadvantages of the "ask questions first, patent later" approaches employed by some other countries. The Article concludes that granting patents on morally controversial biotech subject matter and then asking whether such inventions should be patentable is bad policy for the United States and its patent system, and posits workable, proactive ways for Congress to successfully guard the patent-eligibility gate.