Common Thread

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On the genome as a Commons

Book: The Common Thread, John Sulston


David Bollier, of the On the Commons blog, discusses The Common Thread, John Sulston’s account of his part in the public project that sequenced the genome:

His book provides a nuanced defense of treating knowledge of the genome as a commons. To begin with, Sulston reminds us that the genome is a part of nature, of the given world, and that knowledge about it is discovered, not invented. In the history of intellectual property, and in patent law particularly, there is a long tradition whereby the things we discover about the natural world cannot be owned. You can’t own the speed of light, even if you were the first to figure out what it is. An invention based on the speed of light, however, that you may own.

“It seems to me that your fencing off of a gene should be confined strictly to an application that you are working on--to an inventive step. I, or someone else, may want to work on an alternative application, and so need to have access to the gene as well. I can’t go away and invent a human gene. So all the discovered part of genes...needs to be kept pre-competitive and free of property rights." Sulston’s implied distinction between the competitive and the pre-competitive suggests a second reason to treat the genome as a commons. With something as basic and pervasive as the human genome, asking that we choose between a private or common property regime sets up a false or premature dichotomy. Just as public roads and waterways provide an infrastructure out of which markets may grow, so publicly available knowledge about the genome allows for a variety of uses, many of them commercial. There is an analogy here to the protocols by which the World Wide Web operates: where the protocols are common knowledge and cannot be taken private, commerce flourishes; were they are proprietary, commerce hesitates. If you want a lively commerce arising from our understanding of the genome, treat it as a commons. A third reason to treat the genome as a commons arises from the nature of the undertaking itself. DNA is not a simple substance. “In every cell of your body you have two meters of the stuff," Sulston writes. If you made a scaled-up model with the DNA from each cell as thick as a sewing thread, your model would be 200 kilometers long. To develop knowledge about something as staggeringly complex as that requires an institutional structure allowing for collaboration and group intelligence." ( )