"Biological Open Source"

Michael Bernstein webmaven at cox.net
Thu Nov 16 06:01:10 UTC 2006

On Wed, 2006-11-15 at 21:06 -0800, Lawrence Rosen wrote:
> What is different or unique about Biological Open Source that suggests
> we need something new?

I think the point is that biological systems have 'source code', ie.
DNA, that can be 'compiled' into opaque blobs (though not binary ones).
These blobs can frequently reproduce themselves (like computer worms),
and you can reverse-engineer them to figure out what the source code is.

In fact, all of the extant source code we have has been
reverse-engineered from these opaque blobs.

Many of the commercial entities engaged in this reverse-engineering work
are claiming patents on the resulting source, making it illegal for
anyone else to use that source, even if they reverse-engineered it
independently from some other organism (rather than from a proprietary

Many of the commercial entities engaged in this reverse-engineering work
are also patenting the compiling and decompiling tools they devise, even
though these too are largely derived by decompiling naturally occuring

(note: although DNA is the closest analog to computer source code in
this area, there are plenty of other forms of data (for example,
proteomics) that are important as well)

All of this is providing a serious incentive to create a voluntary
commons of various forms of biological data, techniques, and tools that
is strongly analogous to (and partially inspired by) the FOSS community.

Analogies aside, no existing software licenses (or, I suspect (though
IANAL), even their terms of art) can be used verbatim, so new licenses
are needed to achieve the desired result.

Janet is asking our advice regarding the necessary freedoms that these
licenses need to protect, and how to do so.

In this case, the covenants and licenses covering patented biological
techniques and biological source that can be implemented in (potentially
self-reproducing) biological systems may need to be significantly
different in detail, even if they are similar in spirit, to their
equivalents in software licenses.

Have I correctly summed this up, Janet?

- Michael R. Bernstein

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