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Intellectual property is a broad heading used to refer to a wide variety of rights associated with inventions, discoveries, writings, artistic works, product designs, and designations of the source of goods and services. Patents and trade secrets are the most important of these sorts of intellectual properties in the field of biotechnology. One aspect of intellectual property that distinguishes it sharply from other forms of property-and for some people makes it harder to justify-is that intellectual properties may be possessed and used by many people simultaneously. This is not so for tangible property. If someone borrows my car, I cannot use it-nor can anyone else-until the car is returned to me, but if someone borrows my secret manufacturing process or my backup copy of my word processor, I can keep on using it while someone else is using it. In fact, no matter how many people I share my word processor with, as long as everybody can make a copy, it is not going to interfere with my ability to keep on using it. This capacity for simultaneous possession by many people is a feature that is common to all sorts of intellectual property, including computer programs, musical recordings, lists of customers, and self-replicating cell lines or genetically engineered organisms. Many people intuitively feel that they are doing nothing wrong when they make unauthorized use of intellectual property as, for example, when they borrow and copy other people's computer programs.


Reprinted with permission from Biotechnology: Science, Engineering, and Ethical Challenges for the Twenty-First Century (1996) by the National Academy of Sciences, Courtesy of the Joseph Henry Press, Washington, D.C.