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Patent Politics

Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe

Patent Politics

Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe

Over the past thirty years, the world’s patent systems have experienced pressure from civil society like never before. From farmers to patient advocates, new voices are arguing that patents impact public health, economic inequality, morality—and democracy. These challenges, to domains that we usually consider technical and legal, may seem surprising. But in Patent Politics, Shobita Parthasarathy argues that patent systems have always been deeply political and social.
To demonstrate this, Parthasarathy takes readers through a particularly fierce and prolonged set of controversies over patents on life forms linked to important advances in biology and agriculture and potentially life-saving medicines. Comparing battles over patents on animals, human embryonic stem cells, human genes, and plants in the United States and Europe, she shows how political culture, ideology, and history shape patent system politics. Clashes over whose voices and which values matter in the patent system, as well as what counts as knowledge and whose expertise is important, look quite different in these two places. And through these debates, the United States and Europe are developing very different approaches to patent and innovation governance. Not just the first comprehensive look at the controversies swirling around biotechnology patents, Patent Politics is also the first in-depth analysis of the political underpinnings and implications of modern patent systems, and provides a timely analysis of how we can reform these systems around the world to maximize the public interest.

304 pages | 9 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017

History: History of Technology

History of Science

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Political Science: Public Policy

Sociology: Individual, State and Society


"At first blush, Shobita Parthasarathy’s PATENT POLITICS appears to be an historical and geographic journey documenting the expanding scope of patentable subject matter to cover a growing number of life-forms and biotechnological discoveries. . . . However, PATENT POLITICS touches on something far more fundamental. The book provides a sophisticated case study in the boundary work exercised by key patent stakeholders, resulting in a Kafka-esque expertise barrier separating the patent system from the public it is meant to serve. Many of us have encountered the work of boundary agents in one context or another, along with attempts to reinforce domains of expertise, distinguish their craft and knowledge from that of others and reserve protected spaces for themselves. Yet few have previously engaged in the level of rigorous analysis surrounding the extent and depth of boundary work in the patent system as Parthasarathy has . . . . PATENT POLITICS is a brilliant account of how the patent system's 'expertise barrier' has created an institutional rift between the patent system and the public it is meant to serve. Viewed in this light, Parthasarathy’s book is truly a unique contribution to patent scholarship. Patent scholars continue to rehash age old debates within standard philosophical frameworks while continuing to overlook the sociology of patenting. While patent scholarship’s regulatory turn hit full stride several years ago, perhaps what patent law scholarship needs now is a sociological turn. PATENT POLITICS may go a long way to ushering in this much-needed new sociological patent law perspective."

IP Law Book Review

“The ability to present certain outcomes, relationships, processes, or arrangements as neutral, technical, universal, or inevitable manifests and maintains power in society. In opening the black box of science and patent politics, Parthasarathy does more than just highlight differences between two significant and seemingly similar regions of economic and political power in the world today. In showing that things are different between these two places, Parthasarathy shows that things do not have to be the way they are anywhere today. . . . Patent Politics clearly shows how representing science, technology, and law as apolitical is deeply political. As such, patent politics are everybody’s business to engage with and to decide upon.”

American Journal of Sociology

"[M]eticulously researched and very readable... a perfect starting point for anybody seeking to understand the modern history of patent systems in the United States and Europe, which differ even though they certainly did not evolve in glorious isolation from each other. It uncovers their political character and the underlying dynamics that lead to change and resistance to change. [Parthasarathy] is right to conclude that further harmonization efforts are likely to struggle due to distinctive and often quite different and hard-to-reconcile political cultures, and that innovation governance needs to be rethought in light of the fact that patent law is just one element of the regulatory regime. Moreover, the regulation of innovation needs to embrace public engagement concerning not just patents but technology, human values, and the public good."


"This is a brilliant, deeply researched book that gets to the heart of how and why the public has been shut out of ethical and political debates about the life sciences in the U.S., but not in Europe. Patents are treated as technical issues in the U.S., and as ethical and political issues in Europe, as a result of laws and long-term political cultures. The result: The U.S. patents far more life forms than in the EU, turning life into money by bypassing public input."


"This is an understudied area of [science, technology, and society] that Parthasarathy carefully navigates in order to understand how knowledge production interacts with law. The reader learns the differences in values, law and objects between US and European patent politics. This comparison brings into focus the role that law, biotechnology corporations, scientists, activists, and more play in deciding what knowledge deserves legal protection. Patent Politics is a fascinating read that will continue to be relevant for many years to come."

New Books Network

"A lucid comparison of the U.S. and European patent systems focusing on the politics of patenting life forms and extensively discussing the ways in which political culture and ideology shape different understandings of the public interest. . . . The book makes an insightful contribution in the field of science and technology studies."

Technology and Culture

"A careful and detailed study of the politics of life form patenting in Europe and the USA. . . . a remarkable piece of scholarship that sheds light on why the systems of agro-biotechnology governance of two initially similar political powers are substantially different." 


"In just under 300 pages, Parthasarathy takes readers on a deep dive into the tumultuous evolution of patent systems in the United States and Europe, first by constructing historical frameworks for each and then by applying them to the systems' different reactions to morally ambiguous innovations in biotechnology . . . . Patent Politics is both a timely and salient contribution to a number of current discussions about the role of government in democratic society, and a prime example of how society can use hindsight to shape future policy. . . . [It's] a formidable contribution both to the science and technology studies literature as well as to the burgeoning field of bioethics. Parthasarathy masterfully juxtaposes complex human morality with the rigid framework of law, and demonstrates that with a little bit of encouragement they can be far more complementary than expected."

Issues in Science and Technology

"In its comparative approach and sophisticated methodology, Patent Politics is a unique, vital, and highly readable contribution to our understanding of patents—of life or otherwise. It makes a compelling case, accessible to a large readership, that patents are deeply rooted in the political culture and values of the nations that create these systems. . . . It is through understanding patents as political that we have the best chance of creating a patent system that serves the public interest."

History: Reviews of New Books

"Parthasarathy's Patent Politics intervenes powerfully in broad debates about science, politics, and intellectual property in order to broaden the imaginary socio-technical horizon in the field of biomedicine. Patent Politics identifies the patent system as a key nexus through which the various scientific, social, political, economic, and ethical factors come together to forge a particular biotechnological form of life in the age of biocapitalism."

Studies in History and Philosophy of Biol & Biomed Sci

"The book provides a novel comparative analysis on the social, cultural and political factors explaining why controversy surrounding biotechnology patents in the US and Europe rooted in different institutional practices of governance and deliberation has taken different forms. . . . A repository of information on patents systems and its modern history."

Asian Biotechnology and Development Review

“Patent offices play a crucial role in the development of innovative global industries like biotech, pharmaceuticals, and IT. Parthasarathy’s comparative analysis explores the puzzling and durable differences between the US and European patent systems. Meticulously researched and clearly written, this important book provides an insightful analysis that opens new questions about the limits of globalization and the continuing importance of political forces in shaping intellectual property.”

Bruce G. Carruthers, Northwestern University

“Patent Politics is well crafted, with sharp comparison, strong analysis, and sound data. Parthasarathy offers a timely study that spans several fields: science and technology studies, science and technology policy, comparative politics, and political sociology. Patent Politics will be widely read and cited by anyone with an interest in the past, present, or future of patents in the United States and Europe.”

Daniel Kleinman, University of Wisconsin, Madison

“Parthasarathy's comparative approach to looking at the United States and Europe is intriguing and makes a significant contribution to the current state of the art—showing how differences in legal, cultural, and political traditions pertain to policies in respect to the life sciences. She not only provides a detailed account of the controversies surrounding life form patenting, but also vividly shows how the troubled legal regime of intellectual property results from negotiation with a whole set of actors, networks, and texts that are seen as external to the law. Patent Politics is an important, timely, and impressive contribution to the field.”

Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, Linköping University

Table of Contents

Acronyms and Abbreviations
Chapter One: Defining the Public Interest in the US and European Patent Systems
Chapter Two: Confronting the Questions of Life-Form Patentability
Chapter Three: Commodification, Animal Dignity, and Patent-System Publics
Chapter Four: Forging New Patent Politics Through the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debates
Chapter Five: Human Genes, Plants, and the Distributive Implications of Patents
Appendix 1: Major Events Related to the US and European Life-Form Patent Controversies
Appendix 2: Methodological Note


Science, Knowledge, and Technology section, American Sociological Association: Robert K. Merton Award

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