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From: Premise Checker <che...@panix.com>
Date: Tue, Aug 18, 2009 at 3:44 AM
Subject: [tt] NS 2640: Review: Biobazaar: The open source revolution
To: Transhuman Tech <t...@postbiota.org>
NS 2640: Review: Biobazaar: The open source revolution and biotechnology
by Janet Hope
* Book information
* Biobazaar: The open source revolution and biotechnology by Janet Hope
* Published by: Harvard University Press
* Price: $27.95
* ISBN: 9780674026353
RETURNING to school for a refresher course in biotechnology, Janet
Hope becomes alarmed when each concept is presented along with a
corporate logo and ownership claim. Here's a technique, her
professor tells her: expression of proinsulin in E. coli--"owned"
by Hoechst and Eli Lilly. And here's another: expression of
mini-proinsulin in S. cerevisae--"owned" by Novo Nordisk.
Hope's fellow students are focused on careers in the corporate
world, a focus that seems to overshadow any wonder about science
itself. She contrasts this state of affairs to that of free software
development, an area that earlier caught her fancy when she heard a
talk by free software guru Richard Stallman. In the world of free
software, freedom and openness are defining principles of a new
model of social organisation involving collaboration between peers
and a "bazaar"-style production model without formal hierarchies.
In Biobazaar, Hope attempts to apply the principles of free software
to biotechnology. The book is centred on what she refers to as the
"irresistible analogy" between the two fields. But while the analogy
works some of the time, at other times it is strained. It works best
in asking how a research community can use licensing strategies to
protect scientific knowledge from enclosure by corporate interests.
It is least persuasive in providing a business model for new drug
The open source software movement is built on innovative
intellectual property licences. The most influential is the Free
Software Foundation's GNU General Public License. GPL grants a
"copyleft" licence that allows people to take freely shared software
code and modify it, so long as they make their modified version
freely available under the same GPL terms.
Can a GPL-style licensing strategy protect biotechnology research
from proprietary controls? Hope reports on efforts to do just that,
and the frustrations that accompany them. The Human Genome Project,
for example, rejected a restrictive licensing strategy and made
important genomic information publicly available, but now faces
increasing threats from an explosion of patents that limit the
rights of researchers to use that information. The International
HapMap project cataloguing common human genetic variants employed a
copyleft-type clause that prohibited users from patenting their
data, but ultimately abandoned this approach because it led to
difficulties when trying to incorporate the project's data into
other genomic databases.
Among the core difficulties in adopting the software model to
biotechnology is the nature of the rights themselves. Unlike lines
of software code, data doesn't qualify for copyright protection so,
at least in the US, it can't be both public and protected.
Inventions can be patented and licensed, but that is costly.
Even if one could design legal strategies to "copyleft"
biotechnology, would it, or should it, catch on? There is a tension
between a researcher's desire for freedom to operate and his or her
need to ensure financial returns for investors, and this has to be
resolved before the principles of free software can be applied to
biotechnology. As long as proprietary control ensures investors'
returns, it will be difficult to stop researchers and companies from
legally enclosing medical knowledge. Wishing it were not so isn't
enough. One has to explain where the money will come from, and Hope
only hints at some solutions.
There's a tension between researchers and private investors
More government grants, for instance, might help, but there has to
be space for competition and private-sector decision-making. Hope
cites a proposal by Tim Hubbard and myself for the creation of
"competitive intermediaries", privately managed R&D outfits that
invest in open source projects. They would be financed by
contributions from individuals and companies, who would be required
by law to pay into the fund of their choice. Separately, many are
calling for a vastly expanded role for prizes to replace marketing
monopolies as the source of income for drug developers.
So can the lessons of open source software be applied to
biotechnology? The answer is a qualified yes. There is much to be
learned and replicated from the free software field, but the
differences are also important. Are we on the verge of an open
source revolution? If not a revolution, surely a growing rebellion.
Hope gives us food for thought on the possibilities.