Diamond v. Chakrabarty

447 U.S. 303 (1980)

Quick Summary

Anwar Chakrabarty (plaintiff) developed a genetically engineered bacterium capable of breaking down oil, while Sidney A. Diamond (defendant) represented the Patent Office which denied a patent for the organism. The central issue was whether such a living, human-made organism could be patented under 35 U.S.C. §101.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Chakrabarty, determining that his creation fell within the scope of patentable subject matter as defined by Congress. The decision was grounded in an interpretation of statutory language and legislative intent, with an emphasis on supporting human ingenuity.

Facts of the Case

Anwar Chakrabarty (plaintiff), a skilled microbiologist, developed a genetically engineered bacterium with the unique ability to break down crude oil, making it potentially valuable for addressing oil spills. Chakrabarty sought to secure his intellectual property rights by filing for a patent on this human-made organism. The patent examiner, however, rejected the application for the bacterium itself, stating that living things were not patentable under the governing law, 35 U.S.C. §101.

This decision was upheld by the Patent Office Board of Appeals on the basis that living organisms are not included in the statutory language of what can be patented. The Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, however, saw things differently and overturned the previous decisions, leading Sidney A. Diamond (defendant), Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, to appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Chakrabarty filed a patent application for his genetically engineered bacterium.
  2. The patent examiner rejected the application for the bacterium.
  3. The Patent Office Board of Appeals affirmed the examiner’s decision.
  4. The Court of Customs and Patent Appeals reversed the decision.
  5. Diamond, Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, petitioned for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether a living, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. §101.

Rule of Law

The statute 35 U.S.C. §101 must be interpreted broadly to include ‘any’ new and useful ‘manufacture’ or ‘composition of matter,’ as Congress intended to grant patents for human-made inventions that demonstrate human ingenuity.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court delved into an analysis of the language and purpose of 35 U.S.C. §101 to determine if Chakrabarty’s genetically engineered bacterium qualifies as a ‘manufacture’ or ‘composition of matter.’ The Court established that while natural phenomena and abstract ideas are not patentable, an invention that reflects human ingenuity and is not naturally occurring does fall within the statute’s provisions.

The Court further reasoned that the passage of specific laws for plant patents did not imply an exclusion of living things from patent protection under §101, as these laws addressed different concerns such as reproducibility and descriptive challenges unique to plants. The Court also rejected the argument that unforeseen technological advancements like genetic engineering should preclude patent protection until Congress expressly legislates in this area.

The judiciary’s role is to interpret the law as it stands, not to predict or await legislative action on specific technologies. Lastly, while acknowledging potential risks associated with genetic research, the Court emphasized that these concerns are for Congress to address through legislation, not for the judiciary to resolve through patentability determinations.


The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, holding that a live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter under §101.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Brennan, joined by Justices White, Marshall, and Powell, dissented. They argued for a narrow interpretation of §101 and believed that Congress’s prior enactment of plant-specific patent laws indicated an intent to exclude living organisms from general patentability under §101.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Supreme Court ruled that human-made living organisms can be patented if they demonstrate human ingenuity and are not naturally occurring.
  2. The language of 35 U.S.C. §101 is broad and inclusive, intended to encourage innovation and reward inventors.
  3. Congressional action addressing specific technologies is not required for those technologies to be patentable; courts interpret laws as they are written.
  4. Potential risks associated with new technologies are not within the purview of judicial patentability decisions but are instead matters for legislative consideration.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What factors must be considered to determine if something constitutes a 'manufacture' or 'composition of matter' for patent eligibility?

To determine patent eligibility as a ‘manufacture’ or ‘composition of matter,’ the key factor is whether the item exhibits qualities that are markedly different from naturally occurring substances, thereby reflecting human ingenuity. The item should not be a product of nature but rather the result of human innovation or intervention.

  • For example: A chemically synthesized new compound with properties beneficial in medical treatments, which does not exist in nature, would meet the criteria as a ‘composition of matter’ eligible for patent protection.

Can the potential risks or ethical considerations surrounding new technology influence its patentability under 35 U.S.C. §101?

Potential risks or ethical considerations specific to technological advancements do not bear on the assessment of patentability under 35 U.S.C. §101. Rather, this legal analysis focuses on whether the invention is a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, irrespective of broader societal implications.

  • For example: An AI algorithm designed to optimize energy efficiency in buildings could raise privacy concerns; however, these concerns do not impact its eligibility for a patent.

How do courts handle patent eligibility for inventions utilizing novel technologies that were unforeseen by Congress?

Courts assess patent eligibility based on the statutory language at hand and do not withhold patent protection simply because the technology was unforeseen by Congress. They interpret existing statutes to apply to new situations and inventions unless Congress expressly limits their applicability.

  • For example: If a new type of 3D printing technology allows for the creation of materials with unique properties, courts would evaluate its patentability using current law rather than waiting for congressional action specific to 3D printing.
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