22 August 2009

Microsoft patenting phylogenetic methods?

Over at Dechronization, Liam Revell points to a recent report in Science that Microsoft has filed one or more patents [$-a] on the methods biologists use to reconstruct evolutionary relationships among living things.
The patent filing, by Stuart Ozer, claims invention of a variety of techniques already in wide use by systematists and evolutionary biologists – and (so far as I could tell) none of these inventions are original in quality. The whole patent filing can be read (at one’s own risk) in its entirety here, however I have also chosen a few select passages for reproduction, below.

Among the claims of invention in this patent filing, the author purports to originate:

“a method of generating biomolecular clustering patterns”

...

“counting evolutionary events in each of the identified plurality of positions at each identified node in the evolutionary tree”

...

“counting evolutionary events further includes: generating an event rate . . . wherein identifying related positions includes identifying related positions based on the event rate”
This is worrying to systematic biologists because they don't typically worry about patenting new methods -- in academia, the payoff from devising a new method is to have the paper in which you publish it cited by everyone who uses it. And, although it's polite to ask the original author first, those methods are understood to be freely available for improvement and extension. The last thing anyone wants is to have to consult a patent attorney before publishing. The comments on Revell's post reflect this perplexity and worry, and are well worth following.

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