Serious Worries About Locking Up Synthetic Biology Through Patents
from the be-afraid dept
One of the most interesting parts of Eric Schiff’s (now hard to find) book Industrialization without National Patents is his discussion of the growth of the synthetic chemical industry in Switzerland — specifically with regard to dyes. Specifically, Schiff notes “we can say with fairly good assurance that its start and initial expansion was, on balance, helped rather than hampered by the absence of a Swiss patent system.” Specifically, many different startup dye companies showed up in Switzerland, and the country soon came to be a major player in the market for synthetic dyes. It was the lack of patent protection that helped build up this market — and, yes, while it meant that many started by simply copying the inventions of others (some from abroad), the high level of competition drove innovation rapidly. Specifically, Schiff quotes reports from the era that talk about how those Swiss firms “invented and developed many important new processes.”
Eventually, however, there was anger from the neighboring Germans — specifically from a few giant firms, who hated competing against the nimbler Swiss competitors who were innovating at a pace the Germans couldn’t keep up with. By this time, also some of the more successful Swiss firms realized that with patents, they too could start to block out any new upstarts, and slow down the pace of innovation, keeping monopoly rents for themselves. That resulted in a change to Swiss patent laws in the early 20th century, such that they started protecting chemical dye-making processes. It’s worth noting that this actually helped diminish competition in Switzerland, concentrating power among a few giant firms — including CIBA, who still exists today as a multi-national conglomerate.
However, the real innovation came prior to those patents, and following those patents, only a very few, very large, companies controlled nearly the entire market. I’m reminded of this story, thanks to one of our readers, who goes by the name “Another Mike,” after he pointed me to a video debate by the Long Now Foundation concerning the challenges facing the coming synthetic biology market. The entire video is quite long, but in part nine, historian Jim Thomas talks about the early days of the synthetic chemistry industry, leaving out the part about the success in Switzerland, but focusing on the damaging results of the eventual monopoly and oligopoly in the hands of a few German firms.
He’s now quite worried that the same sort of thing is likely to play out in the synthetic biology market — where patents are being used to guarantee that only a few companies are able to do any actual innovating in this market, with fears about both how that could impact the market, and how it could lead to a dangerous amount of power in the hands of a single company.
And the concerns can go much further. In James Boyle’s The Public Domain, he spends the second half of chapter 7 quite worried about efforts to lock up the basic building blocks of synthetic biology. As he notes, synthetic biology is quite similar in many ways to software — and locking it up with patents would have the same disastrous implications as software patents currently do. Luckily, the early days of software did not involve patents, but the same cannot be said for synthetic biology. Boyle notes:
It would be as if, right at the beginning of the computer age, we had issued patents over formal logic in software — not over a particular computer design, but over the idea of a computer or a binary circuit itself.
There are efforts underway, described both in the video linked to above, and in Boyle’s book, to create more open information in the synthetic biology world — but there are also numerous investors and companies rapidly trying to patent up every aspect they can. It’s easy to pay attention to things most of us use every day — like software patents. But we should be quite worried about what’s happening in other important fields like synthetic biology as well. When the basic building blocks are being locked up by patents, there is much to be worried about.