In the wake of Craig Venter's announcement that he and his team had created the world's first synthetic lifeform, Jamie Boyle considers the legal implications of a synthetic biotech world in which the norm is that the fundamental units of creation are exclusively held by a few patent owners:
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.
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