"Biological Open Source"

Janet Hope janet.hope at anu.edu.au
Wed Nov 15 03:37:28 UTC 2006

Dear all,

I've been subscribing to this list for a few months but haven't  
posted before.  I'm prompted to do so now because some of the issues  
that have come up regarding the APL licence discussion have broader  
implications, and I'd like to get people's thoughts on those.

I'm aware, though, that -- as David Woolley pointed out early in the  
APL discussion -- "the only official purpose for this list is  
obtaining [OSI] approval, and that is best done by a request by the  
author of the licence terms".  The issues I want to raise are off  
topic by this definition.  On the other hand, it seems to me from the  
APL discussion that they are of interest to at least some people on  
the list, so I'll make so bold as to tell you what they are and I  
promise to take it well if you all decide to shoo me away.

Since 2002, I have been working (as have several others) to build a  
meaningful model of free and open source biotechnology that conforms  
as far as possible to the software model.  In 2003, I visited the US  
to discuss this project with biotech, software and IP experts.  On  
that visit I met Brian Behlendorf, Bruce Perens and Larry Rosen;  
Bruce suggested that when an open source biotech licence was in the  
offing we biotech people should come back to the open source software  
community for comments, so that's what I'm doing now.

Some on this list may be familiar with the “Biological Open  
Source” (BiOS) initiative of CAMBIA, a non-profit molecular biology  
research association based in my home town of Canberra, Australia.   
This initiative involves licensing several patented biotechnologies  
under licences that CAMBIA describes as "open source".  Clearly,  
these licences cannot be OSI-approved because the terms of the OSD  
(as I read them, anyway) aren't broad enough to deal with biotech/ 
patent issues.  CAMBIA doesn't claim they're OSI-certified.  However,  
it is fair to say that CAMBIA is getting plenty of publicity and  
significant funding as the leading light of a new biological open  
source movement on the strength of having invoked the open source  

So far there has been little detailed public scrutiny of these so- 
called "Biological Open Source" licences.  However, my own impression  
is that they fall short of the standards one might expect in a robust  
translation of open source principles from copyright/software into  
patents/biotechnology in various ways (that I'm happy to enumerate if  
people indicate interest).  Of course there may be excellent  
practical and/or legal reasons for this departure, but those of us in  
the biotech community who are interested in pursuing/facilitating an  
open source approach to biotech would like to be able to identify  
clearly which aspects of the BiOS translation deviate from the  
essential principles of open source licensing.  This will enable us  
to ask -- for this and future attempts at translating OS into biotech  
-- (1) whether such deviation is justified and (2) whether it is  
reasonable to call the result “open source”.

It's been pointed out in the APL discussion that there's no trademark  
on the term "open source".  Anyone can call anything open source if  
they want.  Still, from the perspective of a fledgling open source  
biotech community it doesn't make sense to erode the goodwill that  
has been built up around that label by the software community or to  
alienate people who could give us good advice.  Moreover, we (some of  
us, anyway) want to borrow the licensing features that make open  
source functional, not just the rhetoric.

Note that the question is not whether the licences are compatible  
with associated open source copyright licences, as might be the issue  
for a grant of patent rights in software that is covered by an open  
source copyright licence.  Rather, it is whether the biotechnology  
patent grant is itself “open source”, as far as that is possible.

What do you all think?  Does it matter how people use the term "open  
source" outside the software context? And would anyone be prepared to  
discuss these licences with me in more detail, either on or off the  
list? I've prepared some comments on the licences but won't clog up  
the list with them unless/until invited.


Dr Janet Hope
Centre for Governance of Knowledge and Development
Research School of Social Sciences
Australian National University
T: +61 2 6125 0172
F: +61 2 6125 1507
janet.hope at anu.edu.au

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