Winner of the 2018 Robert K. Merton book award, Science, Knowledge, and Technology section, American Sociological Association


Over the past thirty years, the world's patent systems have experienced pressure from civil society like never before. From farmers to patient advocates, new voices are arguing that patents impact public health, economic inequality, morality--and democracy. These challenges, to domains that we usually consider technical and legal, may seem surprising. But in Patent Politics, Shobita Parthasarathy argues that patent systems have always been deeply political and social. 

To demonstrate this, Parthasarathy takes readers through a particularly fierce and prolonged set of controversies over patents on life forms linked to important advances in biology and agriculture and potentially life-saving medicines. Comparing battles over patents on animals, human embryonic stem cells, human genes, and plants in the United States and Europe, she shows how political culture, ideology, and history shape patent system politics. Clashes over whose voices and which values matter in the patent system, as well as what counts as knowledge and whose expertise is important, look quite different in these two places. And through these debates, the United States and Europe are developing very different approaches to patent and innovation governance. Not just the first comprehensive look at the controversies swirling around biotechnology patents, Patent Politics is also the first in-depth analysis of the political underpinnings and implications of modern patent systems, and provides a timely analysis of how we can reform these systems around the world to maximize the public interest.

Patent Politics is widely available, including from University of Chicago Press, the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, and Amazon. If you would like Professor Parthasarathy to speak about Patent Politics at your organization, please contact her at shobita [at]


"Highly Recommended." —Choice

"Parthasarathy’ s comparative work very convincingly debunks presumed universals. Patent Politics clearly shows how representing science, technology, and law as apolitical is deeply political. As such, patent politics are everybody’ s business to engage with and to decide upon." —American Journal of Sociology

“This is a brilliant, deeply researched book that gets to the heart of how and why the public has been shut out of ethical and political debates about the life sciences in the U.S., but not in Europe. Patents are treated as technical issues in the U.S., and as ethical and political issues in Europe, as a result of laws and long-term political cultures. The result: The U.S. patents far more life forms than in the EU, turning life into money by bypassing public input.”—STAT

Patent Politics is both a timely and salient contribution to a number of current discussions about the role of government in democratic society….[it is] a formidable contribution both to the science and technology studies literature as well as to the burgeoning field of bioethics.”—Issues in Science and Technology

“This is an understudied area of [science, technology, and society] that Parthasarathy carefully navigates in order to understand how knowledge production interacts with law. The reader learns the differences in values, law and objects between US and European patent politics. This comparison brings into focus the role that law, biotechnology corporations, scientists, activists, and more play in deciding what knowledge deserves legal protection. Patent Politics is a fascinating read that will continue to be relevant for many years to come.”—New Books Network

“A lucid comparison of the U.S. and European patent systems focusing on the politics of patenting life forms and extensively discussing the ways in which political culture and ideology shape different understandings of the public interest. . . . The book makes an insightful contribution in the field of science and technology studies.”—Technology and Culture

“A careful and detailed study of the politics of life form patenting in Europe and the USA. . . . a remarkable piece of scholarship that sheds light on why the systems of agro-biotechnology governance of two initially similar political powers are substantially different.”—Tapuya

"At first blush, Shobita Parthasarathy’s PATENT POLITICS appears to be an historical and geographic journey documenting the expanding scope of patentable subject matter to cover a growing number of life-forms and biotechnological discoveries. . . . However, PATENT POLITICS touches on something far more fundamental. The book provides a sophisticated case study in the boundary work exercised by key patent stakeholders, resulting in a Kafka-esque expertise barrier separating the patent system from the public it is meant to serve. Many of us have encountered the work of boundary agents in one context or another, along with attempts to reinforce domains of expertise, distinguish their craft and knowledge from that of others and reserve protected spaces for themselves. Yet few have previously engaged in the level of rigorous analysis surrounding the extent and depth of boundary work in the patent system as Parthasarathy has . . . . PATENT POLITICS is a brilliant account of how the patent system's 'expertise barrier' has created an institutional rift between the patent system and the public it is meant to serve. Viewed in this light, Parthasarathy’s book is truly a unique contribution to patent scholarship. Patent scholars continue to rehash age old debates within standard philosophical frameworks while continuing to overlook the sociology of patenting. While patent scholarship’s regulatory turn hit full stride several years ago, perhaps what patent law scholarship needs now is a sociological turn. PATENT POLITICS may go a long way to ushering in this much-needed new sociological patent law perspective." —IP Law Book Review

"Parthasarathy’s book is meticulously researched and is very readable. It forms a perfect starting point for anybody seeking to understand the modern history of patent systems in the United States and Europe, which differ even though they certainly did not evolve in glorious isolation from each other." —H-Sci-Med-Tech

"As critical policy scholars have a longstanding interest in controversies stemming from scientific and medical innovations, this book will be of great interest thematically and adds to the growing dialog between science studies and policy studies." —Critical Policy Studies

“by shining a light on the socio-political-cultural framework in which patent-related decision are made in Europe and the United States, the book potentially helps one to anticipate–and possibly even affect–future battles.”—Journal of Responsible Innovation

"...the book’s demonstration of the significance of the underpinning political ideologies of the role of the government and market in achieving the public interest (the market-making US approach versus the market-shaping European one), will be illuminating for many other areas in which science and technology are governed and debates about their social significance play out. In this regard the book provides a route into further substantial lines of inquiry." —New Genetics and Society

"Parthasarathy's Patent Politics intervenes powerfully in broad debates about science, politics, and intellectual property in order to broaden the imaginary socio-technical horizon in the field of biomedicine....With great clarity, the book discusses the issue of how the US and Europe have distinctively defined intellectual property, especially with respect to its relationship with politics, ethics, morality, and other societal concerns such as distributive and environmental justices." —Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Science


“Patent offices play a crucial role in the development of innovative global industries like biotech, pharmaceuticals, and IT. Parthasarathy’s comparative analysis explores the puzzling and durable differences between the US and European patent systems. Meticulously researched and clearly written, this important book provides an insightful analysis that opens new questions about the limits of globalization and the continuing importance of political forces in shaping intellectual property.” —Bruce G. Carruthers, Northwestern University

“Patent Politics is well crafted, with sharp comparison, strong analysis, and sound data. Parthasarathy offers a timely study that spans several fields: science and technology studies, science and technology policy, comparative politics, and political sociology. Patent Politics will be widely read and cited by anyone with an interest in the past, present, or future of patents in the United States and Europe.” —Daniel Kleinman, University of Wisconsin, Madison

“Parthasarathy's comparative approach to looking at the United States and Europe is intriguing and makes a significant contribution to the current state of the art—showing how differences in legal, cultural, and political traditions pertain to policies in respect to the life sciences. She not only provides a detailed account of the controversies surrounding life form patenting, but also vividly shows how the troubled legal regime of intellectual property results from negotiation with a whole set of actors, networks, and texts that are seen as external to the law. Patent Politics is an important, timely, and impressive contribution to the field.” —Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, Linköping University

Interviews, Podcasts, and Other Videos

Discussion with New Books Network about Patent Politics, November 2018.

"Patent Politics" Tech Talk, Center for Democracy and Technology, March 30, 2017. 

"Talking Biopolitics" webcast with Tania Simoncelli, Director of Policy for Science, Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Organized by the Center for Genetics and Society, November 16, 2017.

"Wine with Friends" podcast, January 31, 2018.


Related Scholarly and Opinion Articles

Shobita Parthasarathy. “Patents and Politics.” In Sahra Gibbon, Barbara Prainsack, Stephen Hilgartner, and Janelle Lamoureaux, eds., Handbook of Genomics, Health and Society. Routledge, forthcoming.

Shobita Parthasarathy (July 19, 2017). “How to make sure we all benefit when nonprofits patent technologies like CRISPR.” The Conversation.

Shobita Parthasarathy (2016). “Governance Lessons for CRISPR from the Missed Opportunities of Asilomar.Ethics in Biology, Engineering, and Medicine. Vol. 6, No. 3-4, p. 305-312.

Shobita Parthasarathy (April 4, 2016). "CRISPR Dispute Raises Bigger Patent Issues That We're Not Talking About." The Conversation. (reprinted in Singularity Hub, among other outlets)

Shobita Parthasarathy (July 31, 2015).An early expression of democracy, the US patent system is out of step with today’s citizens.” The Conversation. (reprinted in Science Codex among other outlets)

Shobita Parthasarathy (2015). “Co-Producing Knowledge and Political Legitimacy: Comparing the Life Form Patent Controversies in Europe and the United States.” In Stephen Hilgartner, Clark Miller, and Rob Hagendijk, eds., Science and Democracy: Emerging Trends. Routledge.

Shobita Parthasarathy (2014). “Observing the Patent System in Social and Political Perspective: A Case Study of Europe.” (with Alexis Walker) In Margo Bagley and Ruth Okediji, eds., Global Perspectives on Patent Law, New York: Oxford University Press.

Shobita Parthasarathy (2011). “Whose Knowledge? Whose Values? The Comparative Politics of Patenting Life Forms in the United States and Europe.” Policy Sciences. Vol 44, No. 3, p. 267-288.

Shobita Parthasarathy (2010). “Breaking the Expertise Barrier: Understanding Activist Challenges to Science and Technology Policy Domains.” Science & Public Policy. Vol. 37, No. 5, pp. 355-367).