The Fictions of Autonomous Invention: Accumulation by Dispossession, Commodification and Life Patents in Canada

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In 2002 the Canadian Supreme Court ruled to deny Harvard College a whole organism patent over the oncomouse. In 2004, the same court ruled that Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser had violated Monsanto patents covering GM canola. Both decisions rejected whole organism patents, running counter to US precedents. Yet both, nevertheless, consolidate private claims to life as patentable inventions, and critics claim, with some support from Justices in the Schmeiser case, that patents over genes amount to de facto patents over whole organisms. In this paper I argue these cases are broadly consistent with the notion of accumulation by dispossession as a means to expand the scale and scope of capital accumulation via so-called ‘extra-economic’ means. As such, I examine the cases as privatizations, but also as relational moments in the commodification of nature. However, in hoping to unpack and fill out this notion of the extra-economic, as well as to critically examine the necessarily incomplete character of commodification as a tendency, I look to the ways in which judges and interested activists deliberate over the economic, legal, ecological, ethical, and even metaphysical arguments and representations required to uphold discrete genes, processes, and whole organisms as inventions.

Keywords: accumulation by dispossession; biotechnology; genetically modified organisms; oncomouse and canola; privatization and commodification of life

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, Program in Planning, and the Centre for Environment, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada;, Email:

Publication date: June 1, 2007

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