Synthetic biology is typically described as an arena in which new kinds of biological entities are being created via novel ‘engineering-based’ means of tinkering with life and its component parts. This research domain is also an arena of social experimentation, in that some advocates of synthetic biology are actively promoting new property regimes aimed at establishing various forms of ‘open biology’. This article considers how these emerging visions of open biology are implicated in the construction of political subjects and the relations among them. The article contrasts two policy discourses for understanding intellectual property: the traditional innovation perspective and the less well-institutionalized but clearly emerging politics-of-technology perspective. These discourses serve as heuristic devices that offer different perspectives from which to view emerging property regimes in the synthetic biology arena. As a concrete example of an open biology regime, the article then turns to the BioBricks initiative and examines the regime being imagined and constituted in its vision of open synthetic biology. In this way, the article explores the question of whether and in what ways the open source regimes currently being proposed actually address increasingly pressing questions about how property rights in emerging technology impinge on democratic decision making.
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Venter seems to prefer the term synthetic genomics to that of synthetic biology.
Copyleft uses copyright to construct self-perpetuating licenses to lock in openness by permitting others to modify and distribute copies of a work if and only if the same rights are preserved in the modified versions (for example, the General Public License and some Creative Commons licenses).
See Hilgartner (2004) for an example from genome mapping.
Boyle, who has been writing about synthetic biology for several years, wrote a brilliant book analyzing ‘law and the constitution of the information society’ (Boyle, 1996). Torrance (2010), for example, concludes a law review article with the assertion that the BioBrick Public Agreement (discussed later) can be read not only as a licensing agreement but also as a constitution.
The BioBricks initiative is, of course, only one of many examples of efforts to build ‘openness’ of one form or another into the biological sciences.
The constitutional approach used here can be used to analyze any of a variety of regimes of control, so while the case study is specific to the BioBricks regime, it is relevant to other ‘constitutional’ efforts in biology and other areas of emerging technology.
The section on policy discourses and emerging technology summarizes Hilgartner (2009).
See, for example, Fischer (2003), Hajer (2005), Lakoff (2002); see also Goffman (1974).
On imaginaries, see Jasanoff and Kim (2009), Taylor (2004) and Marcus (1995).
Some of the most interesting writing in this domain, such as the work of Boyle (1996, 2003a), Lessig (1999, 2004) and Gillespie (2007) blend these concerns (see Hilgartner, 2009).
An exception found in some jurisdictions (for example, the European Patent Office) is doctrine that disallows patents on subject matter deemed to threaten morality or order publique.
On configuration power, see Hilgartner (2009).
Innovation discourse concerns itself with several species of inventors, including past inventors (whose rights the patent regime must protect), present inventors (who deserve to be rewarded with rights) and future inventors (who need incentives to create and also require access to the ideas and inventions of others in order to create). Minimalists imagine a world in which past inventors and their rights inhibit future innovation by restricting access to their patented inventions (for example, Heller and Eisenberg, 1998), whereas maximalists tend to imagine inventors as needing incentives and control over markets to stimulate innovative activity. Even so, the maximalists and minimalists share the basic commitments of the innovation discourse (Boyle, 2003a). In contrast, the politics-of-technology discourse offers a distinct perspective on IP, casting inventors as but one interest group among many in a broader democratic polity.
See, for example, Ritzer and Jurgenson (2010). Examples of Web 2.0 content are YouTube videos, Wikipedia and Facebook posts.
See Mirowski (2008) on MTA-related restrictions.
Indeed, some BioBricks leaders such as Endy, who co-authored a report (Garfunkel et al, 2007) have been active in biosecurity and biosafety issues. Efforts to develop technical means for addressing biosecurity and biosafety are on the iGEM agenda, and recently one iGEM team developed a method for scanning computer files to identify efforts to synthesize dangerous DNA sequences, such as the genomes of pathogens.
Some analysts, notably Vogel (2008), contend that biosecurity threat assessment is systematically flawed in that it focuses narrowly on technical issues and neglects social factors.
For reasons of space, I only briefly mention several additional aspects of the BPA. The User and the Contributor agreements both contain ‘no warranty’ and ‘limitation of liability’ clauses. In addition, to ensure the authenticity of BioBricks parts and to provide attribution and acknowledgment, the BPA stipulates that the Foundation may insert BioBrick identification tags into Materials, and that Users who distribute or commercialize BioBricks parts must prominently display the BioBricks logo. BioBricks™ is a registered trademark.
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This article was first presented at a Workshop of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) on ‘Synthetic Biology and Open Source: Normative Cultures of Biology’ organized by the BIOS Centre on 23–24 September 2010 and funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
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Hilgartner, S. Novel constitutions? New regimes of openness in synthetic biology. BioSocieties 7, 188–207 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1057/biosoc.2012.5
- intellectual property
- open source
- policy discourse
- politics of technology
- synthetic biology