Minnesota Law Review

Natural Laws and Inevitable Infringement

According to well-established principles, one cannot patent natural laws or phenomena per se, but one can patent new and useful applications of those laws and phenomena. Justice Breyer’s opinion in Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings v. Metabolite Laboratories, Inc. applies this distinction to inventions exploiting natural relationships, such as a method of diagnosing a vitamin deficiency by observing elevated levels of an amino acid in a patient’s blood. Justice Breyer concludes that patenting a method based on observation and reasoning amounts to patenting the natural relationship itself—a result contrary to policy because it denies others a “basic tool of research.” In fact, the traditional dichotomy of principle and application suggests the opposite conclusion. These patents are dangerous, however, because of the critical role that knowledge plays in infringement. The difficulty of avoiding infringement—except by embracing ignorance—could force the abandonment of activities having substantial noninfringing uses, thereby conferring on the patent owner market power beyond the intended scope of the grant. Rather than condemn all patents based on useful observations of natural laws or phenomena, courts should concentrate on those with undesirable and unavoidable spill-over effects that cause avoidance or modification of activity not reserved exclusively to the patent owner.

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