James Boyle has an excellent article worrying about the potential impact of patents on synthetic biology
, following the recent news of Craig Venter's supposed creation of "synthetic life."
Of course, as with nearly everything involving Venter, there's an awful lot of hype about this. Venter is a master self-promoter, and very good at exaggerating what he's done to puff himself up. He's been talking about this idea of "creating life"
for years, but as Boyle notes, what he's done here isn't so much creating life, as it is modifying it:
Though many of the headlines talked of Venter being God and having created life in the lab, that is not an accurate way to describe it. Venter started with a particular naturally occurring cell and effectively, de-compiled, analysed and then painstaking edited and reassembled that cell's genome to create a version of the cell never found in nature. Researchers had already synthesized the genome of the polio virus, creating a genome that would actually "produce" a live virus that infected mice in the lab, but the size of that initiative was several orders of magnitude smaller. The significance of what Venter's team did lay in the scale of the enterprise and the mastery of the code that it demonstrated. It is as if I took your computer, copied the operating system, figured out what each part of that system did, pruned, cut and edited its functions, and then reloaded a substantially edited system back into the computer -- a version which actually proved capable of running it.
That doesn't mean it's not an important step, but it's not quite as big a deal as it's been made out to be. That said, however, Boyle is worried that Patent Offices around the world are going to start patenting the very basic building blocks of synthetic biology, and more or less monopolize the important research that can be done in this field to advance it from the theoretical to the useful:
In an article written for the journal PloS Biology in 2007, my colleague Arti Rai and I explored the likely legal future of synthetic biology. We found reason to worry that precisely because synthetic biology looks both like software writing and genetic engineering, it might end up combining the expansive patent law aspects of both those technologies, with the troubling prospect of strong monopolies being created over the basic building blocks of science itself. Some of the patents being filed are astoundingly basic, the equivalent of patenting Boolean algebra right at the birth of computer science. With courts now reconsidering both business method and perhaps software patents, and patents over human genes, the future is an uncertain one.
In the world of software, the proprietary model faces competition from open source alternatives, free both in price and in that their code is openly available and can be scrutinized and rewritten. Internet Explorer competes with the open source browser, Firefox. Microsoft dominates the desktop operating system market but there is a Linux alternative. Microsoft web server software competes with (and trails) the open source offerings from Apache and others. The same is true in the world of synthetic biology. The Biobricks Foundation is a nonprofit founded by scientists who are keenly aware of the parallels to the software world. They want to create an open source collection of standard biological parts, to make sure in other words, that the basic building blocks, the standard tools of this new world of biological science, remain "open" in a scientific commons. But their efforts, too, are rendered uncertain by the threat of overbroad patents on foundational technologies.
This is a very real threat. Venter has long been a strong advocate for patenting genes, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him try to limit this market quite a bit himself. History has shown time and time again that real innovation happens when there's real competition in the market, as players work hard to one-up each other. Giving the basic building blocks of synthetic biology to one company can lead to a vast decrease in research and development into this emerging field -- exactly the opposite of what the patent system intended.