Over the last 10 years there has been increased interest in the use of marine organisms in medical research.
However which country has the right to exploit these resources. The main issues concern where the organisms are found, and the extent to which a natural substance or gene sequence can be patented. The fact that different patenting rules apply in different parts of the world further complicates matters.
The key legal issue is who owns these “resources” and who then has the right to exploit the research. Who has the right to exploit the biological resources of the high seas, and the legal provisions that should govern such activity, have long been matters of dispute within the international community. This includes those areas far from the coast where the black smokers are to be found, such as the mid-ocean ridges. The problem is that none of the international conventions and agreements contains clear provisions on the exploitation of genetic resources on the ocean floor.
Whilst international conventions including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 calls for “the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources”; in other words, nature’s biological bounty should be shared fairly between the industrialized nations and the developing countries. However, this objective refers only to the area within the limits of national jurisdiction and not to maritime regions far from land.
Ocean based industries such as biomedical companies have a maze of local and international laws to navigate.
The level of protection afforded by patent law to marine-derived drugs, too, will vary from region to region. On land, patents can provide protection for products derived from local animals or plants. In the sea, where currents carry fish, sponges and microbes from place to place, such protection could be far trickier to enforce.