In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly voted to allow the patenting of a living microorganism intended to soak up oil spills. The decision ushered in a new era in intellectual property. Suddenly, the products and processes – even the formulae - of life became patentable. From microorganisms, patent offices have soldiered on to grant exclusive monopolies for plants, animals, entire species, human cell lines, and even fragments of human DNA that only Computers have seen and no one has understood.
In 1980, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office allowed about 60,000 patents. By 1999, the number of annually approved patent claims at the USPTO had more than doubled. But this doubling says more about the strains afflicting overburdened patent examiners than the real surge in the importance of intellectual property in world commerce. It took from U.S. Independence Day more than 200 years ago until December 1999 for the United States to recognize six million inventions.