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Patents On Synthetic Life "Extremely Damaging" 171

Posted by kdawson
from the that-gene-right-there-that-one's-mine dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Pioneer and veteran of genomics Professor John Sulston is extremely concerned about the patent applications on the first synthetic life-form. The patents were filed by the Venter Institute following the announcement of the first life-form to have a synthetic genome. Sulston claims the patent is excessively broad and would stifle research and development in the field by creating an effective monopoly on synthetic life and related molecular techniques. Prof. Sulston had previously locked horns ten years ago with Dr. Craig Venter over intellectual property issues surrounding the human genome project. Fortunately, Sulston won the last round and the HGP is freely accessible — Venter had wanted to charge for access, just as he now wishes to make 'synthetic life' proprietary."
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Patents On Synthetic Life "Extremely Damaging"

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  • Time to go.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by drewhk (1744562) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:16AM (#32334380)

    .. and patent myself before it is too late!

  • by BasilBrush (643681) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:24AM (#32334450)

    Venter Institute have been working on this for 15 years. Allowing them to get a temporary monopoly to use or licence elements of the fruit of their R&D so they can get a return on their investment is exactly what the patent system was intended for.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:29AM (#32334496)

    If their terms are as broad as we are accustomed to from software patents, then I'd say yes, they are trolls and deserve the crowbar treatment

  • by Pojut (1027544) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:29AM (#32334500) Homepage

    Sometimes the depth of human greed astonishes me. This is something which, if openly available to the right people and if they were allowed to work on/improve on it as they saw fit, could literally change almost everything.

    Keeping it locked behind a patent is greed at its worst (or finest, depending on which side you are on.) I'm all for getting paid for your ideas, but some things (like, oh I don't know, synthetic life) should belong to the entire human race, not Joe McBob who can only see lawsuits and dollar signs.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:30AM (#32334514)

    Except patents were designed to protect specific objects, tools, and machines with specific functions--like the iPhone, Droid, cotton gin, etc. not fundamental biochemical interactions. If they're building a specific, non-cognizant organism for a specific purpose, ok; if they're going after the whole concept of synthetic life, no.

  • by Errol backfiring (1280012) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:33AM (#32334542) Journal
    So if you study steel, all steel structures should be yours? And if you study the world...
  • Re:Very bad (Score:2, Insightful)

    by schn (1795404) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:33AM (#32334544)
    That's actually a decent point; under this, would a sentient robot have to pay for access to it's own genome, for reproduction or otherwise?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:33AM (#32334546)

    I'm all for getting paid for your ideas, but some things (like, oh I don't know, synthetic life) should belong to the entire human race, not Joe McBob who can only see lawsuits and dollar signs.

    Are you saying that synthetic life as a whole should belong to everyone, or that all synthetic life should belong to everyone? I agree that making a patent too broad is a bad thing, but I don't see how all synthetic life should be patent free any more than saying electronics belong to everyone and should be patent free. Patents good, overreaching patents bad.

  • by Pojut (1027544) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:35AM (#32334562) Homepage

    Sorry, I should have been more clear...I meant that the guy should be keeping his patent scope limited to exactly what he did, as opposed to making it so broad as to cover synthetic life in general.

    My bad -_-;;

  • by asukasoryu (1804858) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:52AM (#32334674)
    Sexual reproduction has a limited input genome. Nature cannot create anything that does not already exist in the parents, save deviation due to mutation. The idea behind synthetic life is that you can produce any genome and therefore create lifeforms which could not occur naturally. The issue is whether or not you can patent a specific genome so that others cannot use it freely.
  • Oh it's fine. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Aphoxema (1088507) * on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @08:00AM (#32334774) Homepage Journal

    I'm not so worried about this. Monsanto already showed exceptional responsibility with their GM patents on 99.5% of the crops our food, clothes, textiles, and medicines come from. Let's take it to the next step.

  • by arth1 (260657) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @08:09AM (#32334890) Homepage Journal

    Venter Institute have been working on this for 15 years. Allowing them to get a temporary monopoly to use or licence elements of the fruit of their R&D so they can get a return on their investment is exactly what the patent system was intended for.

    No, the intent of the system is clearly written in the United States Constitution, and was to advance the arts and sciences. I.e. a consideration for the [b]people[/b], not the inventor.

    The time limitations on patents and copyrights were deliberately kept short in order to force the inventor or artist to create new work instead of living on the profits reaped from old works.

  • Re:Oh it's fine. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Barrinmw (1791848) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @08:52AM (#32335446)
    It is ok for there to be potential for abuse as long as the person with the power does not abuse it? But what happens when they decide to?
  • by A beautiful mind (821714) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @09:28AM (#32335960)
    Having a good idea is usually common, actually carrying it to fruition is a lot harder. I think that your viewpoint that we need patents to protect solitary inventors from a hypothetical scenario of a greedy corporation duplicating someone's idea well enough, is flawed. Sure, it's possible that it has happened or would happen to people, but we should be optimizing for the common case. Polihistors are a thing of the past, solitary invention is exceedingly rare. Inventions are evolutionary in the sense that it's a long line of small steps of improvements.

    Your scenario of a big evil company swooping down and taking the lone hero's invention is more psychological than based on real concern. A big soul sucking company would probably hire the guy who invented stuff with a generous enough salary. He is the expert on the thing after all, since he managed to innovate in the field. The guy wouldn't get millions of dollars, but he would make a decent living, a good enough outcome for most people. Noone needs millions of dollars for a comfortable living.

    The point is, even solitary inventors profit from innovation without having the protection of an artificial monopoly on abstract things that the patent system is. The vastly more common case is unfortunately the damage resulting from any patent system: patent trolls are not the problem I'm talking about, it's just a sympthom. The problem is slowing down the exchange of ideas and the feedback loop of step by step invention. A patent stops that loop. More than 99% of all patents are for small improvements on the already established knowledge base. You'd be hard pressed to find examples of innovation that wouldn't have been invented until the expiration of the patent describing something and are still useful after the expiry of the patent (maybe except cases where a patent retarded innovation so badly that most progress stopped in a field due to legal concerns).

    We need to get the legal system out of the free proliferation of ideas. It's not only software patents or patents on living organisms that are the problem, it's the fundamental misunderstanding of how innovation occurs.
  • by A beautiful mind (821714) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @09:31AM (#32335988)
    This is like saying that without greed, communism would work :)

    In other words, the patent scheme is broken at it's core.
  • Re:Time to go.. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @09:50AM (#32336236)

    .. and patent myself before it is too late!

    I'm afraid third party can prove prior art existence.

  • Re:Time to go.. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by drewhk (1744562) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @10:19AM (#32336570)

    No, we will form a patent pool. We call it F.A.M.I.L.I.

  • by Man On Pink Corner (1089867) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @10:25AM (#32336676)

    Haven't you seen Flash of Genius about the invention of windshield wipers?

    Yes. You should not get $20 million dollars for being the first person to think "Gee, I wish my windshield wipers had more speeds."

  • by Locklin (1074657) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @11:03AM (#32337248) Homepage
    Of course, the thousands of people who spent the prior 50 years developing the *methodologies* that he used, will be locked out of synthetic life until their children are middle aged. Despite romantic ideas, invention is not a solitary operation. He may have been the first to the finish line using "shitloads of money," but patents will do nothing but slow down progress. The world will start working with synthetic life in a quarter century, whereas without Venter and patents, the we would have synthetic life in <5 (at the rate of progress in molecular biology).

The reason that every major university maintains a department of mathematics is that it's cheaper than institutionalizing all those people.

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