Human Dignity and Patents

C. Geiger (ed.), Research Handbook of Human Rights and IP Rights, Edward Elgar (2014 Forthcoming)

13 Pages Posted: 29 Nov 2013 Last revised: 8 Nov 2014

See all articles by Aurora Plomer

Aurora Plomer

University of Bristol - School of Law

Date Written: November 28, 2013


In the early 90s, the Open University used to offer a Philosophy course entitled ‘Life and Death’ which paid homage to the rich diversity of moral and religious views on the value of human life. Two decades later metaphysical questions about human dignity, the meaning of life, its beginning and its end, have made their way into patent law and patent tribunals and transnational central courts in Europe. This article argues that this is an unnecessary and unwelcome development to address legitimate public concerns about the adverse impact of patents on access to knowledge and essential medicines. The internalization and transplantation of human dignity & human rights within the formal structure of the patent system carries the risk of cutting across regulatory frameworks on research and the system of constitutional protection of fundamental human rights in democratic societies. The argument falls into four parts. The first part charts the rise of human dignity in international law and European human rights law and the increasing ‘thinning’ of the concept of human dignity into an abstract indeterminate concept in the new wave of bio-rights instruments. The second part draws on recent scholarship on the history of human rights which underscores the political malleability of human rights as a moral utopia. The third part shows how the importation of indeterminate human rights, dignity-based restrictions into European law on biotechnological patents has facilitated the displacement and re-enactment within patent law and the courts of moral and religious disputes which have nothing to do with patents per-se. The last part reviews the EPO’s boards ‘dignity’ based decisions against the US SC ruling in Myriad and makes some suggestions as to how best to address legitimate public concerns about the negative impact of patents.

Keywords: Human dignity, patents, EU Directive Biotechnological Inventions, EPO, Myriad

JEL Classification: K00, K20, K40

Suggested Citation

Plomer, Aurora, Human Dignity and Patents (November 28, 2013). C. Geiger (ed.), Research Handbook of Human Rights and IP Rights, Edward Elgar (2014 Forthcoming) . Available at SSRN: or

Aurora Plomer (Contact Author)

University of Bristol - School of Law ( email )

Wills Memorial Building
Queen's Road Clifton
Bristol BS8 1RJ, BS8 1RJ
United Kingdom

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