Consequences of property rights

20.16 Property is often described as a ‘bundle of rights’, which includes the rights to use, transfer, manage and possess an object.[19] This bundle of rights normally includes the right to the income generated by the object and the right to its capital value. Some of these rights may not be regarded as appropriate rights for individuals to have in respect of genetic material. For example, if full property rights existed in genetic material, its owner could sell it to the highest bidder. In place of the current system of altruistic donation of samples for research, a situation might develop whereby researchers would have to bid for access to genetic material.

20.17 There are other incidents of property that may be problematic in the context of human genetic information. Property can normally be subject to ‘execution’, that is, it can be seized to pay a debt pursuant to court order. However, it is unlikely that the legal system would countenance seizure of someone’s genetic material to satisfy a judgment debt.

20.18 Property rights normally are alienable, that is, they can be transferred to others. For example, if a hospital had property rights in a sample, it could transfer them to a pharmaceutical company for a fee. That company would then have the right to use the samples to produce a product and would be entitled to any income that was generated by this use.

[19] A Honore, ‘Ownership’ in A Guest (ed), Oxford Essays in Jurisprudence (1961) Clarendon Press, Oxford, 133.