Man who wants to patent genome gets legal threat for embedding James Joyce quote in artificial lifeform

Craig Venter created an artificial lifeform, and in order to tag it, he encoded some literary quotes in its DNA -- a misquotation (as it turns out) of Feynman, and a line from James Joyce. Now he's attracted a legal threat from the famously litigious Joyce estate (an estate that, in my opinion, epitomizes loony, censorious, vindictiveness exercised against living readers and writers on behalf of a dead man).

The irony is ripe -- after all, Venter's the man who wants to patent the human genome.

After announcing their work, Venter explained, his team received a cease and desist letter from Joyce's estate, saying that he'd used the Irish writer's work without permission. "We thought it fell under fair use," said Venter.
The funniest thing is that Joyce isn't "written" in the genome, he's encoded in it by a code of Venter's design. Venter could "erase" Joyce by declaring a different set of mappings for the code. Indeed, you could declare any genetic sequence to be a one-time pad coding for any literary quote (or other text) of the same length and it would, in some sense, be true.

Craig Venter's Genetic Typo (via Tor)


  1. Now there’s some rich 21st century comedy.

    But our hearts go out to the Joyce estate. Imagine the untold loss of revenue, not to mention social standing, by this callous, crass misuse of the Master’s deathless prose! Such might be fit use for the words of Melville or Shakespeare, or maybe that doggerelist Yeats… but Joyce?!

  2. Actually, I’m more concerned about Venter’s ability to create artificial life forms than the legal threat from the Joyce team. Such threats tend to vanish quickly, but what if Venter’s altered creation destroys all Life as we presently know it?

    1. What if the Taco Bell I had for lunch causes severe enough stomach cramps that my innards turn into a black hole and obliterate earth?

    2. That is Venter’s genius! If his lifeform threatens to go grey goo (say that 10 times fast), he will simply sic the Joyce estate on it. He has probably not disclosed the Tolkien quote incorporated as Plan B.

      1. I’m all for using lawyers as a barricade against grey goo, but probably not in the sense you’re thinking :D


  3. By that secondary logic (it is not infringement because a different mapping can be declared) then can’t one copy an entire book but claim there is no infringement because it’s actually written in a completely different language they just made up that just happens to look like English when arranged in a certain way but the book is really about a squirrel with a hankering for rabbit meat?

  4. As I understand it, the US law was 50 years after author’s death until 1998 and then 70 years after death. Joyce died in Jan 1941. That means they should have expired in the US in Jan 1991. Even with the extension they’d be expired by now (Jan 2011).

    So how are they still under copyright?

    Or is this a EU copyright claim?

    1. Well, Mr. Herbert, I think it was originally 14 years from publication, then another 14 years if the author was still alive, and everything extension of copyright after that should probably be considered post-apocalyptic.

  5. moral rights?

    There have also been some new editions of Joyce (the Gabler in the 80s, the Kidd in the copyright interregnum of the early 90s) whose rights may have been assigned to the estate. In that case a clever lawyer might well be able to claim a new copyright

  6. Clearly, Stephen Joyce is correct in this matter and taking the right actions in protecting the estate from the unauthorized use of quotations from texts written over 100 years ago as part of an effort to create synthetic life. Joyce himself would have been horrified at the thought, especially during his later years when his faculties reached their zenith. His grandson appears to demonstrate the same stong reason skills and I am pleased to see him at the helm of the estate.

    The ineclutible modality of Nuclear Powered Cyborg Joyce clones wandering the countryside and confuscating thesaurii en masse should terrify anyone with a respect for intellectual property. The thought that somehow art could spark new life is especially chilling when you consider the potential impact this could have on the continued viability of the estate as a business entity. Removing this short 8 word quote from the abstract design of a DNA sequence is exactly why we have copyright in the first place, to protect everything anyone has ever said from being repeated in a unique derivation, separate from the original in all respects.

  7. Cory, you have no idea what you are talking about in regard to Venter. Craig “wanting to patent the human genome” is a myth. Yes, Celera, (a company Craig hasn’t worked for nearly a decade, btw.), wanted to patent *parts* of the human genome, but that is hardly the same thing. Craig and his institute have contributed terabytes of sequence data (including his own genome!) to GenBank, the standard freely accessible database of biological data.

    1. Seconded. While I don’t agree with Venter’s desire to patent gene sets, the title of this article is completely and utterly untrue, Cory. Please change it.

  8. So, didn’t the Joyce family violate the DMCA in order to discover this “encoded” infringement? It’s a circus already, but that would be a real Big Top moment for me.

  9. Sure, the Joyce heirs are being silly jerks, but we should take note of the fact that it’s a beautiful passage and worthy of repeating. It’s from Ulysses, as Leopold Bloom is ruminating during Paddy Dignam’s funeral:

    Attaga tcaggatg taga aaccatg. (Gtccgta tg acaa–cggac tta?) Cgtg, at–aacagt gataa, ccag ggaccat’c ttgac. Cag gtata, cagga attag!

  10. I think we should all quote Joyce as much as possible, leading to an explosion of legal notices from the estate. It will soon become a matter of pride to have been ceased-&-desisted by the Mr. Joyce the Lesser. And have the welcome side-effect of being an enormous PITA for him to have to wag a finger at everyone, all of the time…

    1. Or: God fuck old Stephen Joyce! He’s a whitearsed bugger. I don’t give a shit for him.

      Now y’all try! :D

  11. This has inspired me. I plan on encoding the complete works of James Joyce into the DNA of an E.coli strain which I will use to colonize my lower intestine. I will shit James Joyce forever.

    1. For those who would like to read Joyce’s gloriously dirty(?), sexy (??), verboten-by-the-estate letters and/or quote Joyce as much as possible, I blogged about them a while ago here

      … along with a topic appropriate discussion of the estate’s tightarsedpigheadery, which includes utterly ridiculous things like denying Kate Bush permission to make a sexy song with Joyce quotes.

      BTW, moved it from my main site because I quickly discovered that the bandwidth taken up by people looking for Joyce’s sex letters is immense, especially after it was on Reddit under the topic “how to talk dirty to your wife.”

      1. Verboten by the what now? The saucy, poop-filled letters are in The Selected Letters of James Joyce, edited by the late, great Richard Ellmann. Available in all good libraries, and in many good used bookstores.

  12. “Craig Ventner created an artificial lifeform”

    No he didn’t. If so, where is it? Can I see it? Is it walking around somewhere? No one here (on Earth) has yet created artificial life, much less an artificial lifeform.
    Whoever this Craig Ventner is, he’s a charlatan and a troll.

    and a dumbo poopie-head besides.

  13. I can’t remember what book I read about the genome project that made me realize that Ventner is a tool, but nothing I’ve read since has made me change my mind. The man is a colossal tool.

  14. Ugh. As a Joyce scholar believe me, this comes as zero surprise. Joyce’s grandson Stephen is a litigation-happy jackass who will take every opportunity to squeeze some more cash out of his grandfather’s intellectual property. Unfortunately it ran in the family, half of Joyce’s letters are him threatening to sue someone for something. Unlike his grandson however, at least he contributed something to the world…

    1. And the other half are letters asking poor Stannie for money. . . .

      My favorite is the letter from Paris to May, the one where he talks about not having eating for a few days, then splurging and puking it all up in one go. Such an anxious cataloguer of his daily finances and pains (and joys), that Joyce. . . .

  15. First and foremost, the name is Venter, not Ventner. Second, he’s best viewed as a clone of Phineas T. Barnum, i.e a showman and businessman, rather than a scientist. Viewed in this context, it’s clear why he tried to insert ‘classy’ quotations into the synthetic genome he contributed to designing. He wants to be considered as an educated man.
    It seems clear to me that Venter really has included a Joyce quotation in his ‘Synthia’ genome – even if the ‘DNA quote’ given by Semiotix doesn’t make sense. Embedding a literary quotation in DNA is rather clever considering that certain vowels (e.g. ‘O’ and ‘U’) cannot be used. However, it isn’t something that the Joyce Estate people should get are exercised about – not least because the quotation used is rather banal.

    1. ” Embedding a literary quotation in DNA is rather clever ”

      Not really. Comptuers only use 1 and 0, using “0”,”1″,”2″,”3″ isn’t a big deal. Certainly doesn’t sound like he used the amino acid codes.

    2. Somehow I don’t recall hearing that P.T. Barnum was elected to the National Academy of Sciences or was a recipient of the US Medal of Science. Yes, Craig can be egotistical and abrasive, but unlike most of his critics, he can get results and the people who count have recognized this.

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