||European Parliament elections 1999
Important points 1994-1999
No patenting of human clones
It won't be possible to patent a footballer's feet or
a fashion model's lips even in the future. Biotechnological inventions, on the other hand,
will be patentable. If for example a scientist discovers that a new medicine can be
manufactured by using certain genetic information (known as a "gene sequence")
or that, by using another gene sequence, crop plants can be made more drought- resistant
and thus be cultivated in very dry regions, it will be possible for these breakthroughs to
All Parliament's hard work on this issue paid off in the end.
After some tough bargaining as well as concerted efforts with Commission and Council, it
managed to eliminate the legal vacuum in the area of biotechnological patents. This also
means that the public and interested social groups will be better informed, as patents
will be published.
Trial of strength
A major bone of contention was germ line gene therapy, in
which the genetic heritage in propagating material is altered so that all subsequent
generations carry the altered genes. Other issues were the precise distinction between a
"discovery" and an "invention", and the patentability of plants and
The rejection of the legislation was welcomed by
environmental organisations but sharply criticised by industry and scientists. The
Commission therefore felt obliged to come up with another proposal, which it did in
January 1997. However, Parliament thought this proposal too needed improvement. At its
first reading in July 1997, under the codecision procedure, it adopted a large number of
amendments. These sought not only to settle the disputed points but also to make the text
more consistent and remove ambiguities. Parliament wanted to take account both of concerns
voiced by environmental organisations, churches and individual citizens, who had contacted
MEPs, and of the needs of science and industry.
The Council took on board many of Parliament's amendments as
they stood so there was no need for a conciliation procedure and in May 1998 the directive
was adopted. Parliament managed to have the text re-worded at several key points. As a
result, only inventions can be patented, not discoveries. It is therefore not possible to
patent the entire genetic inheritance of an organism but only an isolated component
thereof, such as a gene segment, which must have an industrial application. It is thanks
to Parliament that no-one will be able to patent the human body as a whole, even in its
early stages, e.g. as an embryo. Patenting of plant varieties or animal species will not
be allowed either.
At Parliament's insistence it was agreed that no invention
which is morally offensive, such as human cloning or germ line gene therapy, should be
patentable. An ethics committee was set up, also at Parliament's prompting, to deal with
any moral issues arising from the use of biotechnological patents.
MEPs successfully pressed for a ban on any patenting of the
genes of human beings without their knowledge or consent. Should an invention use gene
sequences of individual human beings, their names must be mentioned in the patent
application and they must have given their consent, although on grounds of privacy their
names will not be published.
Farmers too can breathe more easily. They will be allowed to
reproduce genetically modified seed for sowing the following year and even sell it on for
agricultural use but not for commercial reproduction. The same rules apply to stock
Thus, from the year 2000, once the directive has been enacted
by the Member States, it will be possible to patent biotechnological inventions in the EU.
This is not just a big step forward in clarifying the law for science and industry but
also a major boost for freedom of information.
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