By David Cohn
19 January, 2005
push research forward, scientists need to draw from the best data and
innovations in their field. Much of the work, however, is patented,
leaving many academic and nonprofit researchers hamstrung. But an Australian
organization advocating an open-source approach to biology hopes to
free up biological data without violating intellectual property rights.
The battle lies
between biotech companies like multinational Monsanto, who can grant
or deny the legal use of biological information, and independent organizations
like The Biological Innovation for Open Society, or BIOS, and Science
Commons. The indies want to give scientists free access to the latest
methods in biotechnology through the web.
Today's the Day.
BIOS will soon launch an open-source platform that promises to free
up rights to patented DNA sequences and the methods needed to manipulate
biological material. Users must only follow BIOS' "rules of engagement,"
which are similar to those used by the open-source software community.
technologies you need to innovate and then there are the innovations
themselves," said Richard Jefferson1, founder and director of BIOS
in Canberra, Australia. "But those can only happen when there is
fair access to the technologies."
Just like open-source
software, open-source biology users own the patents to their creations,
but cannot hinder others from using the original shared information
to develop similar products. Any improvements of the shared methods
of BIOS, the Science Commons or other open-source communities must be
made public, as well as any health hazards that are discovered.
BIOS has called
on Brian Behlendorf2, CTO of ColabNet, to create the web tools the open-source
community platform will run on. Those should be up in the coming weeks.
Nipping at its heels
is the Science Commons. The outgrowth project of Creative Commons will
have a hand in all areas of science, not just the life sciences like
BIOS, and is getting ready to launch its open-source community in the
next two to three weeks, said John Wilbanks, executive director of Science
Wilbanks sees Science
Commons and other open-source communities as a "neutral ground"
for people to decide how much control over a patent they want to maintain
or control. "Say you are a holder of patents and you want to make
them available, you should be able to do that without having to call
a lawyer," said Wilbanks.
While free access
to biological information will benefit those doing research, companies
who have invested millions in patents, on the other hand, won't perform
expensive groundbreaking research without a guarantee that their intellectual
property rights would be upheld. "Patents attract investors, providing
the resources necessary to bring the product to market," said Brigid
Quinn, deputy director of public affairs with the U.S. patent office.
"Patents are and have always been an important part of this country's
On the contrary,
Jefferson believes patent restrictions have compromised billions of
people who should be benefiting from new diagnostic tests or improved
genetically modified crops and medicines.
For example, biologists
in Kenya might be eager to create a genetically modified sweet potato
that could allow farmers to use fewer chemical fertilizers. But if a
company owns all or part of the gene sequence, DNA fragment or the mechanism
in question, the scientists' hands are tied unless they can pay a licensing
fee. The corporations that own such patents won't invest in research
unless they know a market is waiting for the product.
in Kenya can start a company, perhaps they can make $300,000 a year,
but that's just not on the charts for Monsanto," said Roger Brent
of Berkeley's Molecular Sciences Institute.