Science in Society Archive


Oxford Professor Wins Bitter Patent Battle

Oxford Professor, Ed Southern, most famous for inventing the 'Southern blot', has won the first round in a bitter patent battle with Affymetrix, a Californian based biotechnology company.

Southern developed techniques that make 'microarrays', used to determine which genes in a cell are switched on. He is committed to licensing the technology so as to give competing research teams freedom to develop rival techniques. He believes Affymetrix is trying to use its patents to exert a "stranglehold" over development and said "through their patents, they are claiming rights over things they did not invent".

Affymetrix is refusing to grant Southern access to other technologies that he invented, as part of a cross-licensing deal. Affymetrix bought out Beckman Coulter, Inc, a company that had previously entered into a licensing agreement with Oxford Gene Technology (OGT), a company formed by Southern in 1995.

Affymetrix claim that when it purchased Beckman Coulter's 'business' it acquired the rights to use OGT's technology. But the British judge ruled against this on the premise that Beckman Coulter has no products and therefore cannot be classed as a 'business', leaving Affymetrix with no rights.

Southern is claiming other patent-infringements, particularly on Affymetrix's so-called GeneChip technology. A number of other British and European Affymetrix patents may also be revoked for being unduly broad. OGT officials say they will press for damages of up to US $ 300 million.

Affymetrix responded by saying the British ruling has yet to be defended in the US and European courts and remains optimistic about the company's significant intellectual property estate. Affymetrix currently has the largest DNA patent portfolio in the field, with more than 70 patents issued and several hundred applications pending. However, news of the ruling sent their share price into a downward spiral on the New York Stock Exchange, indicating that bad science and big business go hand in hand, all the way to the bank.

Source: Affymetrix loses first round of patent battle, By David Dickson Nature 404,697, 2000. AR

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