Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Inventing Life

Nathan Brett.

Abstract: Patent laws apply to inventions. But recently patents have been granted on living things and their constituent genes. I will look at the issue of patenting living organisms (such as genetically altered mice and canola plants) and genes (such as the genes that predispose for breast cancer). What arguments are there for patents on such living things? Is this a case of privatizing what would otherwise belong in an intellectual commons? What arguments have been utilized for regarding isolated genes as "inventions"? Should discoveries as well as inventions be subject to patents? In this paper I examine the Harvard Mouse case recently decided by the Supreme Court of Canada. I will argue, in agreement with the Court’s conclusion, that it is a mistake to regard such genetically altered organisms as inventions. Moreover, neither an appeal to what is deserved for risk and effort, nor public policy considerations (incentives) provide a basis for such life patents.


Nathan Brett  (Canada)
Philosophy Dept
Dalhousie University

Nathan Brett (PhD. Waterloo, Canada) has taught at the Universities of Calgary, Guelph, and Toronto. He is currently the Chair of Philosophy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he teaches philosophy of law and politics and the history of modern philosophy. Publications include discussions of issues relating to consent, discrimination, collective rights, property and punishment. He is writing a book on equality and privatization.

  • Patents
  • Genetic engineering
  • Genes
  • Life
  • Inventions

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)