25 March 2011

Enclosing the Ocean Commons

The oceans belong to everyone - well, more or less. That is, they form a classic commons. But of course, that fact doesn't stop people claiming that they own stuff even here:

Molecules derived from marine resources and used for medical applications were worth over $1 billion in 2005, and heat-stable enzymes obtained at undersea vents were worth $150 million. Not surprisingly, the business community has responded by patenting genes derived from marine organisms; the authors were able to identify over 8,500 sequences derived from a total of 520 species in a US gene patent database.

This is a double insult to humanity. Genes are part of the DNA commons, and "belong" to everyone or to no one, but certainly not to any one entity. Those genes were extracted from marine animals, which form part of another commons, the oceans' ecosystems, that also belong to everyone or to no one.

But instead of simply recognising those commons, and letting everyone benefit from them directly, the best the patent maximalists can come up with is a cartel, a.k.a. patent pool:

they also suggest that, in the case of marine materials, a patent pool organized within this framework might improve access to genetic information and distribute the risk and profits broadly among far more nations, rather than limiting it to the few countries that can afford high-throughput DNA sequencing.

The logic here seems to be that of course we need patents otherwise nobody will go to the trouble of sequencing all these interesting organisms. What this overlooks is that the cost of sequencing genomes has come down from a billion dollars (for the first human genome) to a few thousand. Next year it will probably be under $1000, and the year after that a few hundred. In a decade, sequencing will cost almost nothing.

What this means is that, once more, intellectual monopolies are being given away needlessly - no quid pro quo is in fact necessary because practically anyone will be able to do this for very low cost. And once again it's you and me who lose out, as knowledge is sent to the intellectual equivalent of Davey Jones's Locker....


PV said...

All members of a species have the same genes. It's the alleles (gene expressions) that are different. So if companies here are patenting genes, does that mean that microbes of a species whose genes are patented that reproduce naturally but are not harvested are infringing, even if the particular gene expression differs?
a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1

Glyn Moody said...

@PV: as far as I can tell, it tends to be specific DNA sequences that they claim - as in the BRCA variants.

Of course, this means that when it comes to people, the subject they got the DNA from is infringing on the patents the company has on that subject's DNA....