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Introducing the Archival Researcher Network

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Editor’s Note: Amanda Pratt returns to the Pharmaceutical Inequalities series to introduce the Archival Researcher Network by Porta Sophia. Points’ Pharmaceutical Inequalities feature is funded by the Holtz Center and the Evjue Foundation.


At a time when the nonprofit psychedelic prior art library Porta Sophia is generating significant buzz for successful interventions on overly-broad psychedelic patent applications (see for example, coverage in this recent New York Times article), it’s worth reflecting on how a network of archival researchers is working behind the scenes to help shape the future landscape of psychedelic research and make these potential pharmaceuticals more equitably accessible. In the next two posts, I will be profiling Archival Researcher Network (ARN) participants to illustrate how their work supports Porta Sophia’s mission. Here, I’ll discuss the exigence of the ARN and its continued development.


In a June 2021 Points post, Chris Elcock wrote about the emergence of Porta Sophia in the face of ever-growing pressures to patent psychedelic-related technologies. In the 18 months since, Porta Sophia has not only built a library of nearly 800 curated prior art sources (as of November 2022), but has also established itself as an important watchdog in the psychedelic patenting space. The team has directly intervened with sixteen overly-broad patents by submitting evidence of unpatentability to the USPTO and international patent offices, several of which have resulted in applicants canceling and/or amending claims and in one case, a rejection of claims from the USPTO.


In August 2021, I started working as a part-time Data Archivist consultant on Porta Sophia’s Data Team while finishing my dissertation on psychedelic rhetoric at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Together with Data Architect Sisi Li, and Data Curator Shahin Shams, we started formalizing our patent database development, prior art library-building work flow, and direct intervention strategy for overly-broad patent applications.


Today, innovators and patent reviewers alike are likely to find a range of relevant prior art related to recent psychedelic patent applications when searching Porta Sophia’s library, but it is worth noting that some of the most significant prior art in the library from the beginning has been archival (mostly surfaced by Chris Elcock, with the research support of Lucas Richert). For example, one can find prior art for treating ADHD with mescaline via a 1966 letter from Henrik Bull to Ruth Cheney surfaced from the Henrik Bull papers at Berkeley. This is an indication that was recently claimed as innovative in Porta Sophia’s most recent third-party issuance intervention target, for the overly-broad patent application titled “Compositions for reducing inflammation to improve or maintain mental or physical health” (WO/2022/079574).

Archival prior art is important because oftentimes the material far predates contemporary patents’ priority dates, and it is material that is most certainly inaccessible for patent reviewers working with a limited amount of time to research. Archival material often makes legible the vast range of studies from the first wave of psychedelic research that wouldn’t necessarily be returned in a patent reviewer’s research database. Porta Sophia brings additional value because the data team curates archival documents that can’t be reproduced to synthesize and summarize the material relevant to innovators and patent examiners. When discussing the need to continually make our library more inclusive of key archival sources in the history of psychedelics in 2021, we began developing the idea of a network of researchers who would play a key role in crowdsourcing archival prior art for our psychedelic prior art library. Because psychedelic research has historically played out on a global scale, such a network is important in surfacing prior art to reflect the scale of psychedelic research that has taken place throughout space and time.

In February 2022, we sent out our first call for participation in the ARN, and interested parties were then included in our first round of prior art crowdsourcing. On a quarterly basis since, the Porta Sophia data team sends out a list of archival prior art “targets”–essentially, these are historical psychedelic research topics derived from recent patent applications that have not turned up any prior art via the data team’s initial internal research process. On this list, ARN participants can reference links to the full patent applications under review, the priority date (i.e., the publication date that a piece of evidence would need to precede in order for it to count as prior art for the patent application), keywords, targets paraphrased from the patent application’s claims, and the claims themselves. Upon surfacing relevant prior art for any of these pending targets, ARN participants submit directly to the Porta Sophia team via a web-based form.


Since there is a decided learning curve when asking historians to participate in a network related to psychedelic patent law, we held a series of information sessions throughout February for interested participants to learn more about Porta Sophia and how the ARN fit into our mission. Porta Sophia’s legal advisors, comprised of David Casimir and Thomas Isenbarger, provided information on “the least you should know” about patent law and prior art; the Data Team (at the time, Sisi Li, Shahin Shams, and myself) provided a general introductory overview of Porta Sophia; Charles Raison spoke about psychedelic science in his info session; and Lucas Richert spoke about psychedelic archival research.


The intention of the ARN is to connect psychedelic archival researchers and archivists to the Porta Sophia mission first and foremost, but also to serve as a hub for others to become professionalized into doing psychedelic archival research. As such, the information sessions were developed with multiple audiences in mind: historians that haven’t previously worked with psychedelics, but also psychedelic-interested folks of all sectors (e.g., legal professionals, scientists, and community members, to name a few) without historical training.

The Archival Researcher Network Kickoff Event took place June 1st-3rd, 2022, and included opportunities for ARN participants and those interested in Porta Sophia more broadly to learn about the broader issues at play related to psychedelic patents. In addition to a series of drop-in sessions dedicated to providing space for ARN participants to learn more about the nonprofit’s mission, workflow, and how to be involved, the Kickoff Event also included a workshop, keynote presentation, and roundtable.


Stephanie Schmitz, the Betsy Gordon Archivist for the Psychoactive Substances Research Collection, facilitated a hands-on workshop that provided a primer on archival research fundamentals, an overview of the extensive Betsy Gordon Psychoactive Substances Collection at Purdue University, and gave participants an opportunity to dive into key areas of digitized collection materials in search of prior art.


The keynote talk, titled “Reflections and Predictions: Experiences from the Access to Medicines Movement,” was delivered by recent “genius grant” recipient Priti Krishtel, health justice lawyer and co-founder of I-MAK. Krishtel spoke about the value of culture-shifting in the access to medicines movement broadly as a lesson for psychedelic patent activism, e.g., describing her initiative to insist on the importance of the public as key stakeholders for patent examiners and to bring people living with HIV to patent offices to hold conversations about the life-saving drugs at stake.

Krishtel also joined Microdose’s 2022 “Hero of the Year” nominee Sutton King, Tink Tinker, David Casimir, and moderator Graham Pechenik of Calyx Law for a roundtable focused on Indigenous Knowledge and prior art. This roundtable was notable in bringing Krishtel’s health justice perspective in conversation with Indigenous activists (King, Tinker) and lawyers engaged with psychedelic intellectual property (Casimir, Pechenik). Tinker brought important provocations to the conversation in questioning the concept of Indigenous Knowledge in general, and the incommensurability of a legal system that centers “ownership” with Indigenous ways. Among other highlights, King shared reflections from her advocacy work with the Urban Indigenous Collective about how the lack of desegregated health data related to Indigenous people makes it difficult for organization, and this data erasure or data terrorism follows more broadly from the longstanding erasure of Indigenous ways of being and knowing.


As a sidebar to illustrate the relevance of the conversation fostered at this roundtable – a 2022 article in the Anthropology of Consciousness, titled “Dark Side of the Shroom: Erasing Indigenous and Counterculture Wisdoms with Psychedelic Capitalism, and the Open Source Alternative” by Nese Devenot, Trey Conner, and Richard Doyle, says the following when setting up the exigence for their “Psychedelic Manifesto”:


London-based COMPASS Pathways has filed patents for longstanding components of “set and setting,” including the use of “a room with a high-resolution sound system,” and “a bed or a couch” where “the therapist provides reassuring physical contact” (Psychedelic Times 2019; McDaniel 2021). If we follow due diligence, should not the poems of Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina be “prior art” on anything COMPASS might “discover” in their psychedelic focus groups at university research centers? (479)


Not only did Porta Sophia intervene via third-party issuance submission with the patent in question above, but Compass also subsequently canceled all the claims related to set and setting. Porta Sophia is committed to validating Indigenous ways of being and knowing, and continuing the conversation around what it would mean for Indigenous knowledges related to psychedelics to be considered as valid prior art.


As of today, the ARN consists of nearly 30 participants from all over the United States and a few researchers in Germany and the United Kingdom. We are always looking to grow our network to continue making the psychedelic patent landscape more ethical, and we support ARN participants with small research grants. You can find our current call for participation, stay up to date with the network, and express your interest in joining the ARN via the form on the Porta Sophia website: www.portasophia.com/archival-researcher-network.


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