"Biological Open Source"

Michael Tiemann tiemann at redhat.com
Wed Nov 15 12:39:37 UTC 2006

On Wed, 2006-11-15 at 14:37 +1100, Janet Hope wrote:
> 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.  

Janet, I for one welcome your participation.  Moreover, while it is not
likely to lead to a specific license approval, it is very much on topic
for the expertise this list represents.

> 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.

Are you familiar with the work of Vandana Shiva?  Her wikipedia entry is
here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vandana_Shiva .  She has worked with
the Indian government to catalog and protect millions of articles of
traditional knowledge from biopiracy (the taking of goods by foreign
nations who attempt to assert rights against the indiginous creators of
the technology based on patents granted in the pirate countries).  While
I am sure that you are considering biotech in the form of exclusively
"new" development, you should know that there are over 2000 US patents
covering indigenous Indian biotech that dates back 6000 years.  You may
want to consider this context as you think about your own (especially
given Australia's respect for indigenous knowledge).

> 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 "brand".  
> 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 is great to see someone be proactive in asking for guidance, rather
than springing something on us as "well, you've got to approve it
because we sold it as 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.

Indeed.  I think that Sun's choice to put Java under the GPL speaks very
well to the notion that the open source community is able to distinguish
quality from quackery, and Sun's choice made it clear that they are
interested now in quality.

> 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.

I'm a rare participant on this list, but I think this would be a welcome
topic, at least until others feel otherwise.

> Cheers
> Janet
> 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
> http://rsss.anu.edu.au/~janeth


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