This weekend marks the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, widely considered to be the foundation of modern copyright law. The Statute, formally titled “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning,” is often praised for placing intellectual property rights in the hands of individual authors and ushering in the era of public interest copyright law. In reality, however, the law’s most lasting legacy has been the misguided proposition that “the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books” cannot be accomplished without copyright: a system which restricts the flow and use of information, chills collaboration, and presupposes that property rights are necessary to encourage innovation.
Last week, to the surprise of patent lawyers and the biotechnology industry, advocates for technological freedom won an enormous victory against socially harmful distortions of patent law. The Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York held invalid patents owned by Myriad Genetics on diagnostic testing for genetic susceptibility to the most common hereditary forms of breast and ovarian cancer. By “patenting” the right to determine whether the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are present in the relevant mutated form in a women’s genome, Myriad Genetics has been able to exclude all other laboratories from conducting the test. Patients and their insurers have paid much more, and women and their families have waited crucial weeks longer than necessary for information relevant to treatment and potentially affecting survival.