Last year we wrote about the idea of open-sourcing DNA for use in GMOs that were not subject to patent control -- a key problem with the technology, leaving aside other concerns about its application. The newly-launched Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) avoids the controversy surrounding GMOs by using traditional plant breeding, but still makes the results freely available. Here's how the OSSI describes its work:
The most distinguishing aspect of OSSI is the idea that genetic resources – in the form of seeds - are set aside for humanity to use in any way it sees fit. By attaching a free seed pledge to packets of open source seed, these genetic resources cannot be patented or otherwise legally protected, making them essentially available in perpetuity in a protected commons. If they were available only in a traditional commons, people could obtain them, breed with them, and restrict their use through patents or licenses. But in this commons they must remain free. Hence the phrase “Free the Seed!”
The free seed pledge is extremely simple:
This Open Source Seed pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users. By opening this packet, you pledge that you will not restrict others' use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses, or any other means. You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives they will also be accompanied by this pledge.
The parallels with free software's GNU General Public License are clear:
the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change all versions of a program -- to make sure it remains free software for all its users.
That's no coincidence, as an article on the University of Wisconsin's news site about the launch of OSSI explains:
To protect your rights, we need to prevent others from denying you these rights or asking you to surrender the rights. Therefore, you have certain responsibilities if you distribute copies of the software, or if you modify it: responsibilities to respect the freedom of others.
For example, if you distribute copies of such a program, whether gratis or for a fee, you must pass on to the recipients the same freedoms that you received. You must make sure that they, too, receive or can get the source code. And you must show them these terms so they know their rights.
Early on, inspired by the open source software community, which freely shares and collaborates to improve their products, OSSI members starting exploring how to develop open source licenses for seeds -- but came upon numerous roadblocks along the way.
One question is how that pledge will be enforced: what happens if a company takes an open source seed and uses it to produce seeds that it then patents? Another is what impact the initiative will have. At launch, there are 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains; one measure of OSSI's success will be how quickly this number grows. But in an article on the NPR Web site, the sociologist Jack Kloppenberg, who has been writing about the enclosure of the seed commons (pdf) and how to fight it (pdf) for nearly 30 years, is quoted as saying:
This spring, eager to get things moving forward again, Goldman and Kloppenburg [two of the key people behind OSSI] convinced many in the group to embrace the simplest option they had discussed: the Open Source Seed Pledge.
Unlike the comprehensive open source licenses the OSSI group originally tried to develop, the pledge is very concise. It's so short it will be printed on all OSSI seed packets.
one important goal for this initiative is simply to get people thinking and talking about how seeds are controlled. "It's to open people's minds," he says. "It's kind of a biological meme, you might say: Free seed! Seed that can be used by anyone!"
The creation of free software 30 years ago has had a profound effect on computing, and helped fuel the rise of the Internet, with which it has a symbiotic relationship. Food and who controls it are arguably even more important issues for the world, and it would be nice to think that, despite its modest beginnings, the Open Source Seed Initiative might one day have as great an impact as its digital forebear.
Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+