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Natural Data

April 24, 2013
Can you patent a gene, which is essentially data?

Can you patent a gene, which is essentially data?

Can you own data? In one sense, that’s what the arguments before the US Supreme Court over a Myriad Genetics patent are about. The company has patents for a few genes, which in and of itself, are really just data about a particular organism. There are a lot of technical issues here, and I’m not completely sure how I feel about this topic or who I’d like to see prevail in the case. I do think, however, that this does have lots of implications for how we might view other data in the future if the patent is upheld.

As data professionals, we usually think of the mechanics of dealing with the various pieces of data in our organizations. We must protect data, ensure it’s integrity, make it available and more. A large part of our careers is spent manipulating or managing the bits and bytes stored in databases. We must extract information out, and often need to understand what the data represents to do this, but most of us haven’t been exposed to the issues of ownership or rights with data. I think that will increasingly change as government rules, regulations, and laws scramble to catch up with the digital world.

Digital ownership is a very thorny subject, complex in its breadth and depth. We’ve seen technology companies fight against some laws, like CISPA, while supporting others. Often our government officials don’t understand the complexity of the topics, and I’m not sure that we in the technology business explain the the situation well. Even very intelligent people often don’t convey the implications of these complex topics, many of which often don’t have good analogies in the analog world.

Ultimately I think we will find our jobs as data professionals becoming more and more complex as we must not only solve problems and manage data, but we will also end up being constrained by the legalities governing the data.

Steve Jones


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