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Intellectual Property

Industry and government must adopt open-source methods in the life sciences.

Scientific advances are usually achieved on the shoulders of giants. So it is odd that research and development efforts in the life sciences have evolved to discourage new approaches. This is due to an intellectual property regime that, while certainly effective at protecting invention and providing financial rewards, can lead also to terrible outcomes. Many researchers say they donít perform studies in areas that are heavily encumbered with pricey patents; the majority of academic geneticists simply infringe on patents when they can, for the sake of scientific advancement.

Intellectual property law for the life sciences must be reformed, or the entire industry will suffer, as will humanity. Several experts have proposed that the U.S. government exert its right to appropriate patents in clearly defined circumstances, like a pressing medical need or a poorly utilized patent, and provide them to researchers as a means of freeing up experimentation and innovation. Acumen supports this approach, albeit cautiously, because it would be beneficial for the natural tides of market forces to play a predominant role in science.

But there is another approach afoot, one that we can support wholeheartedly—the emerging life sciences open-source movement. Instead of trying to reform the patent system, some biotechnology researchers are trying to unlock its power. As with open-source software, life sciences technologies must remain free to use, improve, and redistribute. Examples include the Human Genome Project, the Open Bioinformatics Foundation, and the Public Library of Sciences. These open-source projects are sprouting up despite serious obstacles, as technology and policy journalist Kenneth Neil Cukier writes in “Community Property,” on page 54 of the Journal, Issue 3. In fact, U.S. government funding agencies have started to eye open-source life sciences initiatives with keen interest.

The evolution of the information technology sector offers a powerful example of how open-source practices in life sciences could benefit everyone. When computing was transformed from a scientific discipline into a commercial activity, the suits took over from the geeks, and most innovations were locked down, rather than shared. Yet after experimenting with various business models, the technology sector recalibrated its approach to intellectual property, making some technologies freely available in order to build a better market, while keeping others protected so they could be monetized. Such has been the case with Sun Microsystemsí Java programming language, as well as browser software: client products are free, but server products must be purchased.

Although entrenched and unimaginative interests have decried these changes as impossible, such a movement is perfectly in line with the history of scientific progress and decentralized global capitalism. No one company or research lab can presume to do a better job than the collective effort of scientists spanning the globe. While open source cannot remedy all the problems of overly broad, extensive, or expensive life science patents, it can ultimately succeed in certain instances—say, for platform technologies that are analogous to computer operating systems—because itís a superior model of innovation that relies on the spirit of academic research from which all science has sprung.

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