How Do Patents Affect Follow-on Innovation? Evidence from the Human Genome

Patents and Intellectual Property

Article Snapshot


Bhaven N. Sampat and Heidi Williams


NBER Working Paper #21666, October 2015


Most innovation builds on earlier inventions. Some are concerned that patents on discoveries like human genes discourage later research relating to those genes. The evidence does not support the view that patenting of human genes either hinders or encourages follow-on research.

Policy Relevance

On average, gene patents had no effect on follow-on innovation.

Main Points

  • The Supreme Court and others are concerned that patents on human genes could make those genes unavailable to researchers, but have no empirical evidence to support this view.
  • Evidence of follow-on innovation based on a gene includes references to the gene in scientific publications, gene-related pharmaceutical research, and gene-based diagnostic tests.
  • Genes that are later patented are those considered most valuable and interesting before being patented.
    • For example, 13.45% of patented genes are used in diagnostic tests, compared to 6.39% of non-patented genes.
    • This complicates the study of follow-on innovation, as researcher might act in response to the value of the genes, not to the patents.
  • If one compares successfully patented genes to genes for which patent applications were sought and rejected, one can study follow-on innovation undistorted by consideration of the gene’s value.
    • The levels of follow-on research related to both groups of genes is roughly the same.
    • There is no evidence that the patented genes were more valuable.
    • There is no evidence that the successful grant of patents reduced follow-on innovation.
  • There is no evidence that valuable patents were assigned to more lenient patent examiners.
  • Non-patent forms of intellectual property protection, which some firms used when their patent applications were denied, do restrict follow-on research.
  • Whether patents on an innovation hinder follow-on innovation depends in part on the costs of licensing the patented innovation.
    • In practice, human genes are freely available to researchers.
    • Many researchers ignore patents, and firms often tolerate infringement by academic researchers.
  • The evidence does not show that gene patents either spur or hinder follow-on innovation.


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