Matters of intellectual property (IP) have been a characteristic concern of synthetic biology since its very birth as ‘open-source biology’. Although questions of IP in synthetic biology have intensified in recent years, little scholarly attention has yet been paid to the details of how such novel IP issues were actually first discussed and developed. In this article, I argue that a renewed orientation to specific empirical detail, to the bumpy road of untidy micropolitical stories and their piecemeal contributions – to the messy details of history – is essential in properly understanding the present IP landscape of this most contemporary of efforts to engineer life. Rather than coming out of any direct desire to gain legal clarity, concern for IP initially emerged organically out of larger discussions about the intended nature of the synthetic biology research community and its norms of openness and sharing. The goal of making biology ‘easier to engineer’ through the production of standard biological parts (BioBricks) has raised a number of these concerns in sharpest form. The emergence and development of IP issues in synthetic biology is thus best understood in the context of the ecology of practices and debates that have characterized the field in recent years.
Keywordssynthetic biology intellectual property BioBricks iGEM registry of standard biological parts Drew Endy
An earlier version of 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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