Nanotech's "Second Nature" Patents:
( The full text of the 36-page report is available here:
ISSUE: On the 25th anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to the patenting of all life forms, ETC Group reports on current trends in intellectual property relating to nano-scale technologies. With nanotechnology, the reach of exclusive monopoly patents is not just on life, but all of nature. Accordingly, ETC Group refers to nanotech's "second nature" patents. Nanotech patent claims offer the South (and society) an advance look at who's likely to own nanotechnology and dominate 21st century commodity markets. Breathtakingly broad nanotech patents are being granted that span multiple industry sectors and include sweeping claims on entire classes of the Periodic Table. Yet, when the G8 nations meet this July they will be unveiling a "Pro-Poor Science" strategy to turn nanotechnology into a silver bullet antidote to social injustice. Is nanotech the solution - or just another big downer for development?
IMPACT: The race is on to win monopoly control of tiny tech's colossal market. The US National Science Foundation predicts that the immensely broad power and scope of nano-scale technologies will revolutionize manufacturing across all industry sectors - capturing a $1 trillion market within six or seven years. Although industry analysts assert that nanotech is in its infancy, "patent thickets" on fundamental nano-scale materials, building blocks and tools are already creating thorny barriers for would-be innovators. Industry analysts warn that, "IP roadblocks could severely retard the development of nanotechnology." Some insist that nano-scale technologies will address the most pressing needs of the South's marginalized peoples. But in a world dominated by proprietary science, it is the patent owners and those who can pay license fees who will determine access and price. Even as South governments are grappling with confusion and controversies over biotechnology, the World Trade Organization's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPs) obligates even "least developed" countries to enforce nanotech patents by 2006.
PLAYERS: The world's largest transnationals, leading academic labs and nanotech start-ups are all racing in the patent gold rush. Increasingly, universities are licensing on an exclusive basis. Nanotech's "second nature patents" are positioning multinational matter moguls to own and control novel materials, devices and their manufacturing processes.
POLICY: While WIPO ponders a "development agenda" in Geneva, patent offices in Washington, Munich and Tokyo are deciding who will gain exclusive monopoly over a technology that will bring profound changes in demand for raw materials and manufacturing around the globe. Despite rosy predictions that nanotech will provide a technical fix for hunger, disease and environmental security in the South, the extraordinary pace of nanotech patenting suggests that developing nations will participate via royalty payments. Accordingly, national governments must protect their sovereignty and intergovernmental agencies must move quickly to prevent multi-sector monopolies, technology barriers and the formation of a powerful new oligopoly that seeks control over the economy's 'second nature.'