Microsoft tries to patent the comparative method

1 minute read

Elizabeth Pennisi writes in Science about a case where computer scientists and their lawyers are bumbling through biology:

Patent 20090030925 was filed by Microsoft researcher Stuart Ozer, an expert in databases, in July 2007. Ozer says he wanted to apply database technologies to complex problems in biological sciences: "I saw an opportunity to create a new approach in analyzing sequence data when phylogenetic information was available," he says.
The patent application describes a way to use biological data that has been organized according to evolutionary relatedness. It includes methods for counting evolutionary events and grouping positions within molecules. However, "this patent is written in such broad language that it appears to swallow up any activity that involves understanding biodiversity through phylogenetics," says William Piel, a phylogeneticist at Yale University. He points out that such analyses date back to Charles Darwin, who sketched the first evolutionary tree; today, more than 350 phylogeny software packages are available on the Web. "Microsoft might as well patent the multiplication tables," Piel says.

The only novelty in this case is that systematists are likely to take it personally. Biomedical researchers already work in a patent-rich environment, museum researchers in taxonomy do not – at least, not yet. But with genomics and bioinformatics, the field is ripe for colonization by enterprising software developers whose companies’ lawyers will be looking to protect their time. And let’s not forget that universities have been stomping into the patent game.

Seems to me that somebody needs to fund a few systematists to outline prior art in the area, so that the field is protected from overly broad patents that might stifle the development of new research methods.

Maybe there’s a bright side: There’s no way that Microsoft could develop anything worse than the ICZN.


Pennisi E. 2009. Systematics researchers want to fend off patents. Science 325:664. doi:10.1126/science.325_664