Biological Open Source

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Term used by the BiOS initiative, see details on Cambia,

Also called the Cambia BiOS Initiative


Richard Jefferson:

"Biological Open Source is a nascent movement, evocative of the transformative changes in information and communications technologies (ICTs) wrought by free and open source software (FOSS). The two movements share some goals: seeing transformational effects on a sector, and increasing the democratic involvement in problem solving; we are learning many lessons from the software world, and will continue to. But it would be a mistake to push the comparison too far. BiOS concepts have emerged from twenty years within the life sciences and human development culture, to address the needs and challenges of biological innovation.

The idea of using patent licenses not to extract a financial return from a user of a technology, but rather to impose a covenant of behavior, is the single feature of BiOS that is most resonant with Free and Open Source Software. We worked with small companies, university offices of technology transfer, attorneys and large multinational corporations to understand their concerns and experiences, and then create a platform to share productive and sustainable technology.

The basic premise underlying that license is that we would not charge any fee for use of the “basket” of technologies with the patent estate being offered. By making the license cost-free, we hoped to induce the most valuable contribution to the license community: “freedom to innovate.”

In exchange for full, unfettered commercial rights to our technologies, licensees are required to comply with three conditions:

  • They will share with all BiOS licensees any improvements to the core technologies

as defined, for which they seek any IP protection.

  • They agree not to assert over other BiOS licensees their own or third-party rights

that might dominate the defined technologies.

  • They agree to share with the public any and all information about the biosafety

of the defined technologies. Several further features of BiOS Certified licenses are very important:

  • The definitions are critical. The core capabilities (enabling technologies, platforms)

and their scope must be carefully defined to allow confidence in the development of viable business models that use these BiOS licensed technologies.

  • The BiOS License structure must be scalable, and it should be generalizable,

capable of development within these guidelines, and overseen by diverse institutions.

We recognized that different technology sets have very different implications in the innovation chain, and that the agreement must accommodate different sectors (e.g., agricultural and medical) and different economic circumstances (industrialized and less-developed countries). Therefore we developed a suite of licenses around several different enabling technologies CAMBIA developed. We created them around our own technologies to have first-hand learning platforms from which we could generalize and help others create their own BiOS-Certified programs.

As we have gained experience with our first-generation licenses through the concerns and suggestions of many licensees and potential licensees, we have aimed to create a “brand” of Biological Open Source (BiOS) that is independent of institution.

The BiOS certification program will help ensure that core BiOS characteristics are sculpted into forms that allow institutions to preserve their own cultures and priorities. They may do this through the medium of patent licensing or through materials transfer agreements (MTAs), a common form of bailment used to provide materials for life sciences research, such as bacterial strains, plant lines, cell cultures or DNA.

The certification approach has been particularly valuable in software development, through the activities of the Open Source Initiative ( which overseas the branding of such licenses associated with copyright of free and open source software. However, life sciences are extremely sector-specific and technology- specific, and it is impossible to forecast or fully anticipate the emerging patent rights; these facts complicate BiOS certification and licensing. Of course these same challenges also render patent-based BiOS licensing and MTAs even more necessary." (

More Information

  1. For overviews of related concepts: see Open Science and Open Biology
  2. Patent Lens