Wednesday 4 November 2009

Open Source and Biotechnology: Whither or Whether Ideology?

I venture to say that most of us are well aware of the fault lines between proprietary and open source software. Proprietary software is characterized by keeping source code secret together with contractual restrictions on the use of the software, plus a reliance on the negative right aspects of copyright and other relevant IP law. Open source, to the contrary, rests on collaborative development and disclosure of source code, subject to various terms and conditions.

Less well-known is the effort to adopt the open source model to subject matter other than computer software. A particularly interesting effort in this regard is the use of open source principles in connection with biotechnology. A useful summary can be found in an article by the prolific and distinguished Professor Robin Feldman (left) of the University of California Hastings College of Law and Kris Nelson (a member of the Class of 2009 of the same school) that appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, "Open Source, Open Access, and Open Transfer: Market Approaches to Research Bottlenecks."

The authors discuss what they call Open Source Technology and Open Science. While the proponents of these variations of open source software are aware of the differences between the underlying subject-matter of software and biotechnology respectively, there appears to be a belief that that there is enough common ground to speak of both areas in a roughly similar fashion.With respect to Open Source Technology, there are two general categories. The first is described as focusing on bioinformatics ("the application of computer software and methodologies to solve biological problems"). The second category is marked by a move from the specific focus of the software interface to an effort "to ensure that the biotechnology tools required for research and innovation are openly available."

In particular, this second category centres on solving biotech-related problems in what the authors call "underserved communities." By this the authors mean communities with limited financial resources, with the result that there is an inability "to navigate the maze of patent rights and licensing necessary to engage in the targeted research." Stated otherwise, this approach intended to enable projects to deal successfully with the daunting problem of patent thickets.

Examples of projects of this kind are: (i) the HapMap Project here (a multi-country project researching genetic differences, with the goal of a certain mapping the human genome); (ii) CAMBIA here (expanding access to biological research, with a focus on disadvantaged communities); and (iii) the Public Patent Foundation here (aimed at solving the problem of patent thickets by establishing patent pools with open accessible patent rights to the participants of the program).
The authors point out several salient differences between Open Source licensing and the biotech variety:

1. Open Science is based on patent rights, which will sooner or later become public knowledge at some point. The same cannot be said of software under Open Source.

2. The resource requirements of Open Science, with an emphasis on sophisticated lab equipment, favor large organizations.

3. The very fact that Open Science is based on patent rights, while Open Source is based on copyright, means that each arrangement will reflect that particular aspects of the underlying legal right.
The authors conclude, with perhaps a tinge of understatement, that "Open Science Systems have not always matched their initial expectations." Perhaps the problem lies in the expectations themselves. When one considers the history of open source software, one is struck by the unique combination of ideology and technology that came together to forge "the movement". It is not at at all clear that this combination exists with respect to biotechnology, with the possible result that ideology may be the driving force, sometimes in an exaggerated and less than helpful fashion. That said, I have virtually no direct experience with open source arrangements in the biotech context. Perhaps my own views on the subject are themselves driven by my own ideological predilection on the subject.


Unknown said...

Thanks for an interesting post!

Yet another interesting initiative on the same topic is the BioBrick Foundation. The trademarked words BioBrick and BioBricks refer to a specific brand of open source genetic parts, defined via an open technical standards setting process. These building blocks are held in plasmids and are divided into three levels: Parts, Devices and Systems. The concept creators are hoping to promote collaborative development in building open libraries of such standard biological parts and devices.

Best regards,
Tobias Thornblad

(Please see an older blog post I made about Biobrick some time ago if the topic interests you

Neil Wilkof said...


Thanks for the discussion on theBioBrick Foundation and for the link to your earlier block post on the topic. Any thoughts on the role of ideology in all of this?

Tobias Thornblad said...

Absolutely Neil, I think that this development towards openness is an inevitable progression as knowledge privitization moves further upstream. What I mean by this is that it is more or less evident that knowledge intensive fields such as (or maybe especially) Life Sciences are being patented and intellectually claimed in areas that were previously regarded as "basic research" or part of the "public domain". This forces academic institutions and research organizations to claim their own enabling technologies to ensure that their activities are not blocked by external parties.

This increasing degree of knowledge proprietization creates a landscape of potential landmines (assuming that these patents will be enforced against infringers) for all actors in the field. As it will be more and more difficult in such landscape to single handed deliver a value proposition without having established separate agreements to circumvent all potential landmines, there will have to be a bigger solution that builds on collaboration. I think that this solution will be open innovation platforms in different shapes. In many cases I think that the actual building blocks or end-products will be these so called "platforms". BioBrick is an example of such a platform for building blocks where continued access is guaranteed by standardization procedures. CAMBIA (in the blog post above) provides an example of a similar ideology where continued access to genetic tools are ensured through a multilateral contract system (BiOS - Biological Open Source), which collectively may be seen as an open innovation platform in the sense that all users are also contributing with all improvements that they make to the enabling tools.

So, when ideologies that build on platform logics (claiming knowledge to ensure openness) are contrasted to Open Science (in the traditional sense i.e. publish to expand a theoretical "public domain") it is quite obvious to me that the future of biotech relies on a collective responsibility to ensure openness. Hence, to ensure open science in the future we will need to consciously build this openness by ensuring access.

Tobias Thornblad

Neil Wilkof said...


Thanks for these comments. I am not a biotech person and so I really don't know what will motivate researchers in this field and, if the answer is collaboration, whether the ideology that drove and drives the software developer to favor collaboration will work, not work, or work with modifications, in the bio tech world. I will rely on you to keep me informed ...