Who Owns Molecular Biology?

Yarden Katz, Boston Review, Oct 28, 2015
Commentary by Stephen Downes

This is an excellent article that while not dealing with education technology directly deals with issues of patents and ownerships that will impact our field, and our society, for generations. At issue is ownership of the CRISPR-Cas system bacteria use to defend themselves against an attacking virus. The system is used to rewrite the virus's DNA, and hence, could be used to for the same purpose by medicine. A patent war is brewing over the technology between Berkeley and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, which has been granted a patent. But here's the issue. CRISPR-Cas is something that exists in nature; it wasn't built. And publicly funded scientists from around the world contributed to its discovery. Moreover, the Broad Institute patent is "is sweepingly general, claiming ownership over the use of CRISPR-Cas for editing all eukaryotic DNA, which includes the DNA of all animals and plants." And it has started granting exclusive licenses for theraputic use of CRISPR-Cas.

So what gives it the right? Here's where it gets serious for educational technology. What happens when similar developments happen in our field? We've already been through things like the Blackboard patent lawsuit. Why should other countries respect an American claim to have 'invented' something that was developed worldwide? It's not simply the U.S. court decision - trade deals and patent legislation being implemented around the world are tilting the balance toward the claim-jumpers. And they are destroying the trust and cooperation required around the world to provide the real social good this research provides - potential cures for a host of diseases, in the case of CRISPR-Cas, and knowledge and learning for all in the case of our own discipline. At a certain point, we need to take the position that if something was developed with public money, for the public good, it can't be patented. But that would require defeating the countervailing interests of large corporations. Because, you know, they don't have enough money. Image: Wikipedia.

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