This story popped across my screen this morning:Microsoft patents phylogenetic comparative methods. . . say what? – Dechronization blog  (hat tip, PJ over at Groklaw).  Bizarrely, Microsoft appear to be patenting a method for Clustering Phylogenetic Variation Patterns.” The authors of the blog article are understandably a bit agitated about this (see this neat graphic).  The author of the Dechronization blog article, Liam Revell, writes:

The patent filing, by Stuart Ozer, claims invention of a variety of techniques already in wide use by systematists and evolutionary biologists – and (so far as I could tell) none of these inventions are original in quality. The whole patent filing can be read (at ones own risk) in its entirety here

Quite how significant this application is for researchers (and it sounds from some of the comments that it is rather a naive application) is unclear.  Joe Felsenstein, in his comment, seems fairly upbeat and doubts that Microsoft are really going to “claim ownership of standard phylogeny methods”.

On the other hand, those of us who have seen nefarious tricks being pulled over the years by Microsoft would advise being wary.

Elizabeth Pennisi writes in the 7th August issue of Science (Science and Commerce:
Systematics Researchers Want to Fend Off Patents
), quoting several phylogeneticists, who point out that few if any of the techniques described in the patent are truly novel (disclaimer, I am insufficently qualified to offer an opinion on the patent’s validity).  However, my reading of the software patent related blogosphere would suggest that prior art doesn’t count for much in the initial approval process.

Whatever the outcome of the application, I suspect that phylogenetic researchers need to keep their eyes peeled (and their search engines active).  As Pennisi points out, this isn’t the first time patents have been rattled, but it seems that Microsoft’s involvement is a little unusual.

Science 7 August 2009:
Vol. 325. no. 5941, p. 664
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_664