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Author: Michael Burstein


Frischmann Predicts Prometheus

Thanks so much to Frank, Danielle, and Deven for inviting me to participate in this symposium. It’s a great pleasure to discuss my colleague Brett Frischmann’s timely, engaging, and important book about infrastructure.

I’m going to focus my comments on Frischmann’s theory of intellectual infrastructure and how it relates to the structure of intellectual property law. Just a few days after the release of Infrastructure, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories. That case presented the question whether certain diagnostic claims were within the scope of patentable subject matter under section 101 of the Patent Act. The Court held that they were not, in a manner that is strikingly consistent with Frischmann’s theory. Hence the title of my post. But Frischmann’s theory may also go a long way toward bringing some order to an area of patent law that has long been confused.

Let’s start with the concept of intellectual infrastructure. Frischmann explains that intellectual or cultural resources can be infrastructural in the same manner as physical goods. So long as the resource is a “nonrival input into a wide variety of outputs” (275), it satisfies the characteristics of infrastructure that Frischmann so richly describes. In turn, that suggests that the case for managing the resource as a commons is strong. Frischmann then explains how this concept applies to ideas. Ideas, he writes, often are infrastructure (subject to a number of complications that I’ll put to the side). So in his view, intellectual property should protect implementations of ideas but not the ideas themselves (286). To sort one from the other, Frischmann turns to the concept of abstraction in copyright law and argues that patent law should follow a similar path.

Now consider Prometheus. The inventors in that case discovered a correlation between the effectiveness of a drug and the amount of certain metabolites of that drug in a patient’s blood. Their patent claimed a method of optimizing the dosage of the drug based on that correlation. The method was simple: (1) administer the drug; (2) determine the amount of metabolites in the patient’s blood; (3) make an inference about drug dosage based on the correlation. Doctrinally, the question before the Court was whether this amounted to a claim on a “natural law” – the correlation between drug dosage and metabolism that happens in the human body – which would be unpatentable under a long-standing exception to the scope of patentable subject matter, or a patentable application of that law.


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