, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 27-39

United States patent prior art rules and the neem controversy: a case of subject-matter imperialism?

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Abstract

A recent United States patent covering an improvement to the naturally-occurring pesticide in neem tree seed oil might have been rejected as 'obvious' if United States patent law recognized certain forms of prior inventive activity on a par with similar activity occurring within the United States' borders. But the US only recognizes prior 'knowledge, use or invention' as blocking a claim to a patent when those activities take place within US borders, or are evidenced by publications accessible in the US, or, more commonly, by foreign patents. Neither of these last forms of tangible 'prior art' is likely to be available to block patents on biodiversity inventions – most notably because of the fact that most developing nations do not allow patents on pharmaceutical or agricultural inventions, categories subsuming most biodiversity-related advances. Although the United States patent only has direct force within the United States, it is nonetheless highly significant to this global dispute, since the United States and other developed nations stand to be the major markets for the end-products of neem. This paper argues that the border-drawing distinctions in US patent law are archaic, counter to stated policy directives and are disproportionately influencing the developing world's stance towards GATT and its intellectual property rights provisions.