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Book: Biobazaar: The Open Source Revolution and Biotechnology. Janet Hope. Harvard University Press, 2008


From the publisher:

"Australian biologist and lawyer Hope challenges the "commercialization of life sciences research over the final quarter of the last century" in this rigorous, closely reasoned book. Referencing Thomas Kuhn's groundbreaking volume, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Hope takes a hard look at intellectual property law, which currently protects monopolistic corporations' right to inflate prices for "life-saving drugs or life-sustaining new crops." Sensing "a paradigm shift in the values underpinning life sciences research," Hope seeks to readdress these policies by applying the model of open-source software to the biotech field."


James Love in the New Scientist:

"RETURNING to school for a refresher course in biotechnology, Janet Hope becomes alarmed when each concept is presented along with a corporate logo and ownership claim. Here's a technique, her professor tells her: expression of proinsulin in E. coli--"owned" by Hoechst and Eli Lilly. And here's another: expression of mini-proinsulin in S. cerevisae--"owned" by Novo Nordisk.

Hope's fellow students are focused on careers in the corporate world, a focus that seems to overshadow any wonder about science itself. She contrasts this state of affairs to that of free software development, an area that earlier caught her fancy when she heard a talk by free software guru Richard Stallman. In the world of free software, freedom and openness are defining principles of a new model of social organisation involving collaboration between peers and a "bazaar"-style production model without formal hierarchies.

In Biobazaar, Hope attempts to apply the principles of free software to biotechnology. The book is centred on what she refers to as the "irresistible analogy" between the two fields. But while the analogy works some of the time, at other times it is strained. It works best in asking how a research community can use licensing strategies to protect scientific knowledge from enclosure by corporate interests. It is least persuasive in providing a business model for new drug development.

The open source software movement is built on innovative intellectual property licences. The most influential is the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License. GPL grants a "copyleft" licence that allows people to take freely shared software code and modify it, so long as they make their modified version freely available under the same GPL terms.

Can a GPL-style licensing strategy protect biotechnology research from proprietary controls? Hope reports on efforts to do just that, and the frustrations that accompany them. The Human Genome Project, for example, rejected a restrictive licensing strategy and made important genomic information publicly available, but now faces increasing threats from an explosion of patents that limit the rights of researchers to use that information. The International HapMap project cataloguing common human genetic variants employed a copyleft-type clause that prohibited users from patenting their data, but ultimately abandoned this approach because it led to difficulties when trying to incorporate the project's data into other genomic databases.

Among the core difficulties in adopting the software model to biotechnology is the nature of the rights themselves. Unlike lines of software code, data doesn't qualify for copyright protection so, at least in the US, it can't be both public and protected. Inventions can be patented and licensed, but that is costly.

Even if one could design legal strategies to "copyleft" biotechnology, would it, or should it, catch on? There is a tension between a researcher's desire for freedom to operate and his or her need to ensure financial returns for investors, and this has to be resolved before the principles of free software can be applied to biotechnology. As long as proprietary control ensures investors' returns, it will be difficult to stop researchers and companies from legally enclosing medical knowledge. Wishing it were not so isn't enough. One has to explain where the money will come from, and Hope only hints at some solutions. There's a tension between researchers and private investors

More government grants, for instance, might help, but there has to be space for competition and private-sector decision-making. Hope cites a proposal by Tim Hubbard and myself for the creation of

"competitive intermediaries", privately managed R&D outfits that invest in open source projects. They would be financed by contributions from individuals and companies, who would be required by law to pay into the fund of their choice. Separately, many are calling for a vastly expanded role for prizes to replace marketing monopolies as the source of income for drug developers." (


In the introduction, she describes the aims and direction of her research:

“I want to explore whether and how key open source principles might be translated into a new context: that of biotechnology and its close industrial relations, pharmaceuticals and agriculture. Open source biotechnology would be a manifestation of the bazaar in a bioscience setting: hence, a “biobazaar.”

The fundamental reason for undertaking this project is the existence of what seems an irresistible analogy between software and molecular biotechnology. Both technologies have enormous potential to help solve some of humanity’s most pressing problems and enrich all of our lives. But their potential will not be realized without further innovation along lines that current industry participants may not yet even be able to imagine. Both industries are highly concentrated: the software industry is characterized by a near monopoly, while the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries, currently the main users of biotechnological innovations, are dominated by oligopolies. Disruptive innovation—the kind that leads to new product types, new industries, and substantial gains in social welfare— threatens the market position of these powerful corporations.

From the perspective of society as a whole, it is therefore a Bad Idea to let industry leaders gain too much control over the innovative process. Yet in both software and biotechnology over the past decade, more and stronger proprietary rights have contributed to a decrease in real competition, allowing large corporations—the beneficiaries of the status quo—to gain a stranglehold on the pace and direction of technological progress.”

She adds:

“A key premise of this book is that open source principles of technology development, licensing, and commercial exploitation offer at least a partial solution to the innovation lock-down caused by extensive private control over scientific and technological information within a highly concentrated industry structure. Open source development shows how groups of volunteers can “collaborate on a complex economic project, sustain that collaboration over time, and build something that they give away freely”—technology that can “beat some of the largest and richest business enterprises in the world at their own game.”

Because open source licensing makes use of existing intellectual property laws, open source strategies need not rely on domestic or international law reform. Open source is also highly resistant to the kinds of countermeasures traditionally adopted by monopolists and oligopolists when technological innovation threatens their market dominance. As Steven Weber points out, open source software is no marginal phenomenon, but a “major part of the mainstream information technology economy” that increasingly dominates those aspects that are becoming the leading edge in both market and technological terms.55 It seems natural, then, to ask: Could open source do for biotechnology what it is already doing for software?”

Open Source Biology and Appropriate Technology

Janet Hope:

“Another broad social movement with potentially very strong connections to open source biotechnology is the appropriate technology (AT) movement. Adherents believe that the failure of decades of technology transfer from industrialized countries to solve problems of poverty and hunger in the developing world suggests a need for development pathways that de-emphasize growth and technological monoculture. They advocate the development and use of alternative technologies that are appropriate to local user needs. Such technologies are variously called intermediate, progressive, alternative, light-capital, labor-intensive, indigenous, appropriate, low-cost, community, soft, radical, liberatory, and convivial technologies.

To appreciate the connection between open source biotechnology and the AT philosophy, consider the perspective on technological innovation articulated by Austrian philosopher and anarchist Ivan Illich in his book Tools for Conviviality.

For Illich, tools are intrinsic to social relationships: individuals relate to society through the use of tools, either by actively mastering those tools or by being passively acted upon. A tool is “convivial” to the extent that it gives each person who uses it the opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Convivial tools facilitate autonomous and creative intercourse among people and between people and their environment; by contrast, “industrial” tools allow designers to determine the meanings and expectations of users. In a technological age, rationally designed convivial tools are the basis for participatory justice—that is, for justice that consists not only in equal distribution of technological outputs (for example, material goods such as drugs or seeds) but also equal control over inputs.

“The principal source of injustice in our epoch,” argues Illich, “is political approval for the existence of tools that by their very nature restrict to a very few the liberty to use them in an autonomous way.”

Consider the use of agricultural biotechnology to produce technical “locks” such as hybridization and genetic use restriction technologies (“GURTs”) that render seed unsuitable for replanting or suppress the expression of introduced traits in saved seed. These are only the most extreme examples: the use of genetically engineered crops that may contaminate others in the vicinity also restricts the autonomy of those who would prefer to grow traditional crops; even the development of new food crops for developing countries is often a case of tools “acting upon” the intended beneficiaries instead of empowering them to define their own productive future. An Andean potato farmer may be very poor and yet not want a genetically engineered potato that boosts yield so as to generate a cash crop. Such a commercial existence may threaten a way of life that the farmer values more than he or she values the ability to buy industrial goods; yet a closely related technology that improves the taste of a variety the family eats every day may be very welcome. In Chapter 6, I noted that the capital intensiveness of biotechnology research and development is sometimes perceived as an obstacle to the implementation of open source. This view is linked to assumptions about the nature of biotechnology as an essentially industrial—as distinct from convivial—technology. But molecular biotechnology and other advanced technologies need not be anticonvivial. Science can be used, not to replace human initiative with highly programmed tools, but to facilitate autonomous, decentralized production. New possibilities for cognitive and material advance opened up by basic discoveries in biotechnology offer a choice: we can apply our new understanding to develop tools that would propel us into a “hyperindustrial age,” or we can use it to help us develop truly “modern and yet convivial tools” that “enable the layman to shape his immediate environment.” Such a convivial biotechnology need not be inherently expensive, because it would consist of simple tools that work with rather than against the tendency of living things to proliferate of their own accord.

Janet concludes:

“These are the very properties that open source licensing seeks to confer through the guarantee of “technology freedom,” described in Chapter 5. Meanwhile, bazaar governance ties the rewards for knowledge creation to the diffusion of knowledge rather than its exclusive control and restores the patterns of communication through which knowledge goods “come to life in society as public goods.”83 Open source biotechnology would give those who are excluded from the organized interests of science, state and industry the ability not merely to question the trajectory of technology development, but to affect that trajectory directly by participating in the design of the technology itself.”

More Information

  1. Open Biology; Open Source Biology