Diamond v. Chakrabarty
447 U.S. 303 (1980)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980)

Diamond v. Chakrabarty

No. 79-136

Argued March 17, 1980

Decided June 16, 1980

447 U.S. 303

Syllabus

Title 35 U.S.C. § 101 provides for the issuance of a patent to a person who invents or discovers "any" new and useful "manufacture" or "composition of matter." Respondent filed a patent application relating to his invention of a human-made, genetically engineered bacterium capable of breaking down crude oil, a property which is possessed by no naturally occurring bacteria. A patent examiner's rejection of the patent application's claims for the new bacteria was affirmed by the Patent Office Board of Appeals on the ground that living things are not patentable subject matter under § 101. The Court of Customs and Patent Appeals reversed, concluding that the fact that micro-organisms are alive is without legal significance for purposes of the patent law.

Held: A live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter under § 101. Respondent's micro-organism constitutes a "manufacture" or "composition of matter" within that statute. Pp. 447 U. S. 308-318.

(a) In choosing such expansive terms as "manufacture" and "composition of matter," modified by the comprehensive "any," Congress contemplated that the patent laws should be given wide scope, and the relevant legislative history also supports a broad construction. While laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable, respondent's claim is not to a hitherto unknown natural phenomenon, but to a nonnaturally occurring manufacture or composition of matter -- a product of human ingenuity "having a distinctive name, character [and] use." Hartranft v. Wiegmann, 121 U. S. 609, 121 U. S. 615. Funk Brothers Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U. S. 127, distinguished. Pp. 447 U. S. 308-310.

(b) The passage of the 1930 Plant Patent Act, which afforded patent protection to certain asexually reproduced plants, and the 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act, which authorized protection for certain sexually reproduced plants but excluded bacteria from its protection, does not evidence congressional understanding that the terms "manufacture" or "composition of matter" in § 101 do not include living things. Pp. 447 U. S. 310-314.

Page 447 U. S. 304

(c) Nor does the fact that genetic technology was unforeseen when Congress enacted § 101 require the conclusion that micro-organisms cannot qualify as patentable subject matter until Congress expressly authorizes such protection. The unambiguous language of § 101 fairly embraces respondent's invention. Arguments against patentability under § 101, based on potential hazards that may be generated by genetic research, should be addressed to the Congress and the Executive, not to the Judiciary. Pp. 447 U. S. 314-318.

596 F.2d 952, affirmed.

BURGER, C J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined, post, p. 447 U. S. 318.

Page 447 U. S. 305

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Primary Holding

Patent protection is available for a micro-organism that is artificially constructed rather than naturally occurring.

Facts

Chakrabarty, a scientist, sought patent protection related to his discovery of a method for developing a bacterium that could break down multiple components of crude oil. His claims ranged from the process of developing the bacterium to the bacterium itself and an inoculum in which the bacterium was stored with a carrier material. While the examiner found that a patent was appropriate for the process and the inoculum, Chakrabarty was denied a patent for the bacterium itself on the grounds that it did not meet the subject matter requirements for a patent. Under 35 U.S.C. Section 101 and the 1930 Plant Patent Act, according to the patent examiner, a living organism may not be patented. Various appellate review panels reached clashing decisions on the matter before the Acting Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks sought certiorari review from the Supreme Court.

Opinions

Majority

  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Potter Stewart
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • John Paul Stevens

Acknowledging that patents cannot protect laws of nature or physical phenomena, Burger still felt that a broad interpretation of 35 U.S.C. Section 101 and particularly the term "manufacture" was appropriate. He found that "manufacture" should have the same expansive meaning as in an ordinary dictionary. Burger also held that the 1930 Plant Patent Act did not necessitate the examiner's interpretation, since that law was intended to separate products of nature from products of human ingenuity. The bacterium was a product of Chakrabarty's own ingenuity because it did not occur in nature.

Burger also rejected the theory that express authorization from Congress would be required to permit patent protection for micro-organisms, since Congress could not have foreseen this evolution in science when drafting the original patent laws. Patents are designed to reward ingenuity and invention, according to Burger, so it would undermine the policy supporting them to deny protection to unforeseen inventions.

Dissent

  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.

Brennan advocated for a narrower interpretation of the issue, limiting it to whether a living organism like a bacterium may be patentable rather than whether unforeseen inventions may be patentable. He agreed with the patent examiner that the 1930 Plant Patent Act prohibited patent protection for living organisms, which he saw as central to the Congressional purpose in crafting that law. Brennan also referred to a 1970 law that specifically excluded bacteria from patent protection.

Case Commentary

Naturally occurring organisms and plants cannot be patented because human ingenuity is not responsible for creating them, but an artificial organism is the product of an individual's creativity and skill, so it deserves protection.

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