Patents of living organisms, that can include plant and animal species, and related biological and biotechnology-enabled inventions, are classified as patents on life forms, or bio-patents. Originally, the system of granting patents started off with machines and instruments and such gadgets and ideas that were the brainchild of great minds and may be seen as a reward for superior intellect, so long as they met the criteria of being non-obvious, novel and usable. In the Unites States, the patent law considers "isolated and purified" compounds as patentable subject matter; e.g. patent no 141072 granted to Louis Pasteur in 1873 for a type of yeast that was free from disease. Later US courts upheld patents on biological substances like adrenaline, chemicals, basic elements, and similar biological inventions. When biotechnology and its immense potential became obvious, companies earnestly resorted to protecting biotechnological IP, which included not merely substances and processes, but also new discoveries of old knowledge, and results of uncertain, debatable and questionable scientific experiments. The court increasingly played a big role in settling cases of infringement and gradually permitted patents on life forms to creep in by the back door – you could claim legal protection to own plants, animals and human genes.
Leaves and twigs of the Neem tree and manufactured Neem products have been used for centuries in India and other South Asian countries, for their excellent medicinal, anti-fungal, and pest repellent properties. The Neem tree is called ‘the free tree’ in one of the South Asian languages. As part of nature’s bounty, it was acknowledged as such and accorded a rightful place in local tradition and culture.
WR Grace Corporation and the US Department of Agriculture obtained a patent on (a fungicidal product obtained from) the ‘free’ Neem tree, with an eye on capitalizing on and monopolizing the obviously vast and potent usefulness. This meant that local users, who for generations together had been using the Neem unrestrictedly when needed, could no longer use it without being ‘guilty’ of ‘infringing’ patent rights. Thus arose an absurd situation where an upstart company made a mockery of traditions and indigenous knowledge. To traditional users, such acts understandably constitute (avoidable) plagiarism, and are seen as both unethical (placing material gains above social responsibilities) and immoral (stealing / copying / plagiarizing what belonged to someone else) on the part of unthinking companies and countries. The idea of privatizing natural resources continues to be unacceptable to indigenous communities. Challenged in 1995 by India, the patent was ultimately revoked in 2005 in Europe.