The Moral Divide: Parthasarathy investigates difference in U.S. and European patent systems

December 7, 2018

When it comes to the patent system, the U.S. and Europe are having very different conversations. As Professor Shobita Parthasarathy explains in her new book, Patent Politics, patents for biotechnology such as gene editing are approached from a technical purview in the U.S., whereas Europe debates the theoretical questions. On a November 21, 2018, podcast interview for New Books Network, Parthasarathy walked host Chad J. Valasek through how patents became a “techno-legal object in the US, and...a moral and socioeconomic object in Europe,” and the implications this has for biotech—and ethical—development. 

Parthasarathy became interested in these deeper questions surrounding science and technology while coming of age during the height of the Human Genome Project. As she told Valasek, “I saw the things that I know now to be the politics of science. The ways in which, for example, we determine risk and risk management strategies for public policy, involves value judgements, political judgments, feasibility judgements.” Parthasarathy channeled the original observations into her newest book, especially after she saw the drastically different approach Europe takes to the patent system. In Europe, she explains, patents cannot be issued if the work violates public consensus or morality. This approach, a remnant of a far older clause called “order publique,” means that Europe has a civic and policy response that the U.S. does not. “What’s interesting to me,” Parthasarathy says, “is that a very different narrative is told in the European system...Neither of them is the natural state of the patent system, but rather that they are the result of fundamentally different approaches to thinking about the relative roles of governments and markets when it comes to innovation.”

This brings Parthasarathy to the structure of her book, which uses formative patent case studies to interrogate these differences. Looking at cases such as Diamond v. Chakarbarty, Parthasarathy coins the term “expertise barriers” to illustrate how activists and other people deemed non-experts are kept out of the policy domain, reinforcing the patent system as techno-legal. The European Union, however, places a high value on such moral debates, bringing them into the conversation directly. Parthasarathy says she uses the cases “to talk about how these are really different moments in terms of determining who can participate in these domains, and to some degree what kinds of issues and concerns can be raised.” 

Listen to the full podcast conversation on the New Books Network. 

Shobita Parthasarathy is a leading scholar on modern patent policy and the public interest. She is a professor of public policy and women's studies at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and serves as director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the University of Michigan. Her book, Patent Politics, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2017.