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Biotech Patents Science

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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  • Exter ... ? (Score:2, Funny)

    by Skapare (16644)
    Somehow, as I was reading it, that title seemed to have the word "exterminate" in it. But maybe not.
    • by Thanshin (1188877)

      Somehow, as I was reading it, that title seemed to have the word "exterminate" in it. But maybe not.

      You mean "Extereminate" right?

      • No, I'm fairly certain it was meant to be exterminate, seeing as extereminate isn't a word. If there was a joke in there somewhere then I missed it I'm afraid.
  • 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!

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by confused one (671304)
      It's too late. There's already large sections of your genome that have been patented by various companies.
      • by drewhk (1744562)

        Then it's time to mutate!

        BRAAAIINS!

      • by Jurily (900488)

        It's too late. There's already large sections of your genome that have been patented by various companies.

        Mom has prior art.

        • But Mom is going to have to spend millions in litigation costs to prove she has the rights to your (and her) genome.
    • by Creepy (93888)

      that would infringe on my patent on you - I'm filing suit in Eastern Texas today.

      • by drewhk (1744562)

        Sorry, but you missed my most recent post, that I started to mutate -- your patent claims are invalid now.

  • 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 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 gandhi_2 (1108023)

        if there was no chance for a profit, it is unlikely that Venter would have spend the last 15 years and shitloads of money on the project.

        • by arth1 (260657) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @08:18AM (#32334996) Homepage Journal

          if there was no chance for a profit, it is unlikely that Venter would have spend the last 15 years and shitloads of money on the project.

          Correct.
          Which would have given others with less money more of a chance to work on this, without feeling it would be fruitless to compete against the big pockets and risk being sued into oblivion.

          • Which would have given others with less money more of a chance to work on this, without feeling it would be fruitless to compete against the big pockets and risk being sued into oblivion.

            No patent has been granted yet. So what has kept them from working on it for the last 15 years?

            What kept them from starting 16 years ago and beating Venter to the punch?

        • 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).
      • by Rob Kaper (5960)

        some things (like, oh I don't know, synthetic life) should belong to the entire human race

        What's the incentive to invest private funds and time into science if you cannot profit from the results just because the entire human race benefits from them?

      • The problem is that without the possibility of patenting it, then Venter wouldn't have done the research in the first place, and nothing would be changed. The backers of Venter must have spend millions of dollars on this research. They wouldn't do that without a reasonable chance of a return.

        Of course if it had instead been the work of public sector money, such as by a government funded university, then I'd agree it should be given openly to all.

    • 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 Creepy (93888)

        heh - objects, tools, machines, and LINES OF CODE - don't forget that one, as it seems to be f*cking with my coding every day. 6 lines of obvious software shader code covered by a patent... grr

      • by shaitand (626655)

        Except that life is not an invention and life and genes should not fall within the scope of patent.

      • by dissy (172727)

        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.

        Neither of those things qualifies for a patent however.
        The latter less so (0%) than the former (Above 0%when talking about the building process and tools to do so, but still 0% as-is)

        There are millions of years of prior art over exactly "synthetic life"

        My grandparents did it to make my parents, and my parents did it to made me. That's 6 people showing prior art, two thirds of which were born and done so long before the people filing the patent.

        * We must assume that humans, animals, plants, and whatever the

    • 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...
      • by couchslug (175151) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @08:06AM (#32334850)

        "So if you study steel, all steel structures should be yours? And if you study the world..."

        I'll study poontang, thank you very much!

      • So if you study steel, all steel structures should be yours? And if you study the world...

        Yes, if you manage to create steel factories and produce steel products first. If you manage to be the first to sail around the world you have studied...

      • So if you study steel, all steel structures should be yours?

        Sure, who cares about steel; steel is weak. What is steel compared to the synthetic flesh that wields it? Now go and contemplate this on my re-sequenced Tree of Woe (patent pending*)

        *That is power.

        • by lennier (44736)

          Sure, who cares about steel; steel is weak. What is steel compared to the synthetic flesh that wields it?

          Well, eg, it is harder to poke pointy metal things into. *Splork*.

      • If you were first to invent steel, then of course you would have earned yourself a limited time monopoly to use or license it. You benefit from that time limited monopoly. The world benefits from you letting them know the secret of this new wonder metal.

        Of course that particular invention was long since made public and isn't now patentable.

        • by lennier (44736)

          The world benefits from you letting them know the secret of this new wonder metal.

          Or, more precisely, from not letting them know the secret, since that's what patents boil down to in practice. People theoretically 'know the secret', but they are forbidden from practicing it under pain of having men with suits and guns have stern conversations with them in concrete rooms.

          So patents are actually about deliberately slowing the improvement of the world until they expire, and deliberately using that regulated vacuum of innovation to create commercial profit - in the absence of what the market

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by lennier (44736)

            The moral of this story: if you create an honest creation to use, rather than to sell - assuming it's a creation which is beneficial to all and not something which helps the wielder while harming others (like say a weapon or a secret process which only gives your business 'competitive advantage' in a zero-sum market) - then you will lose nothing by not patenting or copyrighting it but will in fact gain hugely, as your creation will be distributed widely, make the world more efficient, spark new and better i

            • But much of our social infrastructure views creativity as something you do primarily to sell to others, or get advantage over others. And as long as we think in that way, we'll always be threatened by creativity happening elsewhere, and therefore will seek to control and stamp out creativity in others - and view copying as a form of theft.

              Spoken like someone who has never had to provide for himself by earning a living.

          • Or, more precisely, from not letting them know the secret, since that's what patents boil down to in practice. People theoretically 'know the secret', but they are forbidden from practicing it under pain of having men with suits and guns have stern conversations with them in concrete rooms.

            A statement of the complete opposite of the truth. Before patents, inventors would seek to profit from their inventions by keeping them secret. For example in the steel hypothetical, the inventor would keep the secret of

    • 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.

      • You make it sound as if it was one sided. For the people, not the inventor. That of course can;t be true because the onus is on the inventor to apply for the patent. He would not do so if he didn't benefit from the system.

        The truth is it was always intended to be a balance - for inventors to reveal their secrets in exchange for that limited time monopoly. Both people and inventor were intended to benefit from the arrangement.

    • I have no problem with allowing them a return on their investment.

      But the means is a most unnatural and extremely wasteful and unnecessarily restrictive monopoly, granted and upheld solely by government fiat and force, paid for by our tax dollars. Monopolies are totally unacceptable. Takes a lot of force and expense to make the system function at all. And there is an endless line of scoundrels trying to take advantage of the system's huge uncertainties to argue for having the government cover far mor

    • by dissy (172727)

      Allowing them to get a temporary monopoly to use or licence elements of the fruit of their R&D

      If they were actually patenting something they invented or worked on for a year (or ideally 15 years) then there wouldn't be as much of an issue.

      It's the fact they patented not a method but a thing, and a thing they didn't create.

  • Prior Art (Score:4, Funny)

    by Mattskimo (1452429) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:26AM (#32334474)
    I'd better hurry up and spit in a bag and post it to myself as evidence of prior art.
  • There is prior art in creating extremely variable genes. It's called sexual reproduction, and it's so simple even bacteria can do it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by asukasoryu (1804858)
      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.
    • Actually, Bacteria do asexual reproduction, or more specifically binary fission [wikipedia.org]. So, no, bacteria can't do it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Rogerborg (306625)
        Actually, bacteria can exchange genetic material [wikipedia.org]. While it's not sexual reproduction, it's still pretty damn hot if you watch it under a microscope.
        • by Pojut (1027544)

          "Man, I'm tellin' you Bob...the things that chick does with her flagella? Oof, it's enough to make you divide!"

        • Bacterial conjugation is often incorrectly regarded as the bacterial equivalent of sexual reproduction or mating. Loosely, and misleadingly, it can be considered to be a limited bacterial version of sex, since it involves some genetic exchange.

          While you are correct that bacteria have more advanced mechanisms than just binary fission, it is not considered sexual reproduction. In sexual reproduction you have 2 genomes (with more or less the same genes) from 2 different individuals, thus allowing the propagation of (hopefully) useful mutations and allowing greater diversity in the species.
          In bacterial conjugation, OTOH, one bacteria has a beneficial gene (AKA plasmid) that is copied and transferred to another bacteria that does not have it. This mec

    • I think you'll find that bacteria reproduce asexually.
      • by Dunbal (464142) *

        Yeah just ignore all that stuff about transduction, transformation and conjugation.

        You are told bacteria reproduce asexually in high school. However when you take a university microbiology course you learn that different bacteria can share genetic material, even across species (leading to all the antibiotic resistance we see today). While it might not look like sex to mammals, the exchange and recombination of genetic material through mechanisms other than meiosis IS sexual reproduction, since offspring inh

        • I wasn't ignoring it, I just wasn't considering it sexual reproduction. Sure it has the same end result but as far as I am aware it is two independent processes (horizontal transfer and asexual reproduction). If together they are considered sexual reproduction then fine.

          I did Biology up to "Higher" level. I have no idea what your local equivalent would be (I don't even know where you are) but it ends 1 year before high school does in Scotland (you do it in 5th year, leave in 6th year...although you CAN leav

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:38AM (#32334588) Journal
    Craig Venter's dream is to use the tools of science to create the world's first true patent troll. Not a mere shell corporation; but a living, breathing creature, equal parts mythological tusks and contemporary instinct for ruthless litigation. Natural habitat? The Texas rocket-dockets...
  • Patents (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Black Parrot (19622) on Tuesday May 25, 2010 @07:48AM (#32334638)

    We should start calling them "Letters of Marque", so people will understand their purpose better.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Rogerborg (306625)

      I will trade my lunch for mod points.

      What makes this spookily accurate is the focus on global "intellectual property" enforcement regimes, so that "we can protect our interests abroad". Raw nationalist piracy on a scale that makes pillaging the Plate Fleet look like a 10 cent raid on a Take A Penny, Leave a Penny box.

      Good gravy, and wait until the Chinese get in on the act. Instead of ignoring "IP" rights and actually making things - hah, naive fools - imagine a billion Chinese patent trolls filing th

  • 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.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Barrinmw (1791848)
      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 Aphoxema (1088507) *

        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?

        Just pretend it never happened, stupid.

      • by dkleinsc (563838)

        I believe you need to have your sarcasm detector replaced.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      @Aphoxema: my guess is you are a Monsanto employee because if there's one company being terribly irresponsible with their patents on LIFE (which I can think should be forbidden), it would be Monsanto.
      Please watch the documentary "Food Inc." and you'll see the true face of this horrible company.

      I'm talking:
      - seeds with suicide gens in them so farmers can only use them once
      - plants that grow only once and do not provide seeds at all, so they have to be bought again at Monsanto
      - 70 Monsanto employees scouring

    • by shaitand (626655)

      I'm hoping you intended sarcasm and just forgot that you need to state it explicitly for anyone to know in text land.

      • by Aphoxema (1088507) *

        I'm hoping you intended sarcasm and just forgot that you need to state it explicitly for anyone to know in text land.

        I didn't "forget" to state it explicitly, I'm just not worried about explaining myself for the idiots who don't get it.

  • the Tyrell Corp. to maintain it's stranglehold on off world mining?

  • All patents, which are basically government granted monopolies [cat-v.org], are extremely damaging.

    Biology patents, like software patents [cat-v.org], are just a particularly egregious example, but the same is true of patents in other fields.

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