The GIF of genomics

By Razib Khan | August 17, 2012 12:36 am

As you may know the interminable Myriad genetics patents case has been making waves in the courts, most recently with mixed results as to whether their patents on several specific genetic diagnostics are valid. This aspect needs to be highlighted:

One of the three deciding judges, William Bryson, dissents in part from the majority opinion, arguing that Myriad’s claims to the BRCA gene and gene fragments are not valid. He writes that he feared that if the majority opinion stands, it “will likely have broad consequences, such as preempting methods for whole-genome sequencing.”

This is legalistic hyperbole. If “gene patents” become so ridiculous that whole-genome sequencing becomes unfeasible then the system of intellectual property is going to come crashing down. And whole-genome (and exome) sequencing is not that far off. The Myriad case feels so 2002 to me. It reminds me of another instance where the sluggishness of the legal process was such that the dispute became a moot point because of the march of technological history: the GIF. A particular company owned the rights to the GIF’s compression technique. But over the years the GIF became a marginal format, and the controversy just faded away.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Genetics, Human Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Myriad Genetics
  • John Roth

    If I remember correctly, the GIF didn’t just “fade away.” There was a concerted, and successful, industry effort to marginalize the patent by creating a competing format, Portable Network Graphics (PNG). I don’t believe the controversy ever went through the courts; the patent has long since expired.

  • Razib Khan

    #1, that’s what i define as fade away (i linked to the relevant sections in the post, so i know what you’re talking about). if the USA courts keep upholding myriad for the next 10 years people will just start ignoring the court internationally or circumventing the spirit. at some point myriad will calculate that it’s too expensive and useless to assert their rights, and the case will just fade.

  • Mike Keesey

    Animated GIFs are still pretty darn popular.

  • Mike Keesey

    Also, GIFs didn’t so much fade away as fade into the background. A quick look at the HTML code for this page shows 5 GIFs (and I’ll bet there are more referenced in the CSS). It’s just that GIFs are used mostly for unexciting little design elements, while JPEGs and PNGs have taken over for the “hero” images.

  • Razib Khan

    #4, great point.

  • Dm

    Good comparison, thanks, Razib. The “Myriad” patents (actually owned by the University of Utah) are set to expire much sooner than in 10 years, BTW.

    I used to compare DNA composition-of-matter patents in the era of whole genome sequencing with typewriter patents in the era of computer printers.

    Still useful in some niche markets (typewriters and carbon-copy paper are still viable, if quickly fading, all across South Asia) but any serious patent enforcement or litigation is pretty much preempted by obsolescence.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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