Slide_to_lock

The battle to patent Crispr-Cas9 – a leading method for editing the DNA in living things – is almost over. After three years and millions of dollars, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has ruled on the rights to the gene editing tool, awarding its IP to scientists from the Broad Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

IP battles are frequently in the news – from the recent attempt to trademark KitKat’s iconic shape, to the nearly decade long smartphone patent wars – and have long-reaching consequences. Companies can become tech giants or go bankrupt based on a single decision by a patent court. In scientific communities, where large sums of money are spent researching and developing new innovations and inventions, investment can be completely wasted if a different research team patents the same or a similar invention first.

Changing industries

Receiving a patent means innovators receive a time limited monopoly to an invention. Apple’s ‘slide to lock’ feature is a great example, which has been patented in the US and Europe. It caused HTC and Motorola to change the interface of Android phones in Germany, and any phone produced with an interface that functioned similarly was quickly accused of patent infringement.

Since then, finding new solutions for a similar touch-based interface has led to a myriad of new ways to unlock smartphones.

Lessons learned

Patents which shape industries have two effects. They allow companies that hold IP to receive financial benefits and protection against infringement, while forcing competitors to divert their efforts into new ways to achieve innovation. For large multinational companies, this translates into constant innovation – Google’s Pixel phone employs a patented feature that can register inputs by squeezing the two sides of the phone. Apple is now attempting a similar feature that uses a slightly different method.

Yet for scientific communities, the patent race has potentially detrimental effects. Multiple research teams can be investing in a solution to the same problem, sometimes to the exclusion of other projects. When one team is granted IP rights to that solution, all other teams lose out.

One response has been to create a platform that allows scientists to put their discoveries in the public domain so that they cannot be patented elsewhere. It removes the potential financial gains of IP, but enables scientists to collaborate instead of competing. Whether research groups will choose to use this open-source platform instead of patenting an innovation remains to be seen, but it reveals how the industry is recognising the power of IP and adjusting to meet it.