Chief Justice plays with fire


Prometheus is best known for being the titan who, against the wishes of Zeus, gave mankind the gift of fire. Prometheus is also the name of a company that comes up with new diagnostic and therapeutic products. Today, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a patent dispute between Prometheus (the company) and Mayo Collaborative Services about whether one of its products can be patented.

The echoes of ancient Greek mythology in the case name may have inspired Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. In one of his hypothetical questions to the Obama administration’s lawyer about what processes can be patented, he referred back to one of man’s earliest “discoveries”:

So I have a great idea. You take wood, you put it on a grate, you light it, and you get heat. That .. recites a series of acts performed in the physical world that transforms the subject of the process, the wood, to achieve a useful result, which is heat. So I can get a patent for that?

The answer is no. “It’s not novel, and it’s obvious,” said Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.

Of course, Prometheus (the titan) didn’t get a patent for “discovering” fire because he didn’t discover it. He simply grabbed some fire from the flaming chariot of Helios, the sun god, and gave it to mankind when Zeus wasn’t looking.

Zeus wasn’t best pleased. Prometheus’ punishment was to be chained to a rock for eternity, where a vulture would peck out his liver every day in an endless cycle of pain.

Prometheus could not immediately be reached for comment.


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