From the early 1980s, the implications of including biotechnological innovations within current intellectual property (IP) systems have attracted increasing attention and concern, especially since the internationalization of these systems under the World Trade Organization in 1995. Flaws in the current system have been recognized, particularly regarding its negative effects on access both to the products of innovation (e.g., essential medicines) and to the scientific information and knowledge on which they are based. We now need to construct viable alternative models of innovation management that are able to coexist with IP law, a point strongly argued in Toward a New Era of Intellectual Property: From Confrontation to Negotiation ( www.theinnovationpartnership.org/en/ieg/report/; see also Beardsley 2008).
Janet Hope, of the Australia National University Center for Governance of Knowledge and Development, presents one possible model in Biobazaar: The Open Source Revolution and Biotechnology. Hope, who has worked for several years on open-source biotechnology, covers complex conceptual and theoretical ground, but I urge the nonspecialist not to be put off—the exploration of alternatives to the current system of innovation management is an important topic, and general readers will have a good overview of the issues and problems involved in this endeavor when they finish this book.
Biobazaar examines some of the pitfalls of existing intellectual property protection systems for biotechnology innovation and presents its potential alternative—the “biobazaar” opensource model, based loosely on the open-source software concept—alongside assessments of the suitability of such models for the biotechnology area. It provides a thorough outline of concepts and theories on the relationship of intellectual property rights to biotechnological innovations, of the advantages and disadvantages of various management systems, and the (limited) potential for constructing alternatives that are less obstructive to the flow of information.
Logically starting from an assessment of the problematic and troubled relationship between IP protection and (biotechnological) innovation, Hope makes good use of examples from both the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors of the biotechnology industry, giving justified attention to global dynamics and to the distinct impacts of global innovation systems on developing countries. The analysis supplies clear motivations for examining alternatives to proprietary tools for managing biotechnological innovation. The rest of the book deals with open-source biotechnology—what it is and what its potential is in the biotechnology arena— and introduces the biobazaar model, which is based on the concept of “bazaar production.” Bazaar production, as Hope explains on pages 108-111, is a label used to describe the production model that organizes activities in open-source software, a model characterized by nonhierarchical participation, open membership, users as innovators, and “spontaneous, decentralized ordering of transactions” through open information on the model's subject matter (p. 109). The book remains realistic about the limitations and disadvantages of open-source projects.
The concepts and theories covered in the book are often useful, but at times they are too much for a nonspecialist to absorb and were confusing when presented in rapid succession. Persistence is worthwhile, however: the author makes clear, compelling arguments about current problems and potential alternatives, without avoiding the difficult questions regarding the practical realities of mainstreaming such alternatives. To achieve a more ordered line of argument, I suggest readers work through chapters 1,2,3,5, and 7, followed by 4, 6, and 8; this provides a better flow from the background on biotechnology innovation, through general information on open-source, to more specific information and the biobazaar concept. Given the book's appeal to a wide range of audiences (including scientists, innovators, regulators, and those more broadly interested in the impacts of the governance of innovation), I would suggest that any future editions include a glossary of technical (i.e., scientific and IP) terms.
Biobazaar gives the necessary warnings about the implications of the current system for socially valuable innovations, while being realistic about the possibility of changing the system in the short term. The book does not neglect to recognize the important role IP rights have played in the development of the biotechnology industry, but also notes that they have obstructed certain paths of innovation. Any opensource model will need to take biosecurity controls into account because a major concern of the biosecurity community is the risk of misuse of openly accessible biological information with dual-use potential—gene sequencing information for pathogens, for example (NSABB 2006). That this is not addressed in Biobazaar is understandable, given the book's more technical focus on innovation models, but it would need to be addressed if the biobazaar model is put into practice.
There is a brief discussion (in chapter 2) of science having been, for a few centuries at least, a fundamentally opensource endeavor. This discussion could have usefully been expanded: that the open nature of science is threatened by current IP systems is something that demands further attention.
The book gives timely coverage to many of the problems found as the existing systems of innovation management are applied to biotechnology. The demand for improvements to the current patent system and for wellconstructed alternative models is reaching a crucial stage. Biobazaar not only contains details of its own alternative model but also presents valuable information on open-source models in general and further reflection on the adaptations needed to move from open-source for software to open-source for the biotechnology industry.
I hope to see many others follow Janet Hope's example in presenting potential innovation models that will, in her words, “provide an alternative to the use of proprietary tools—a toolkit for biotechnology innovation that is affordable, accessible, and unencumbered.” In this way, biotechnology may come closer to fully meeting its beneficial potential.
- TM. Beardsley 2008. Preventing Patent Purgatory. BioScience 58: 907. Google Scholar
- [NSABB] National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. 2006. Addressing Biosecurity Concerns Related to the Synthesis of Select Agents. (13 March 2009; http://oba.od.nih.gov/biosecurity/pdf/final_NSABB_Report_on_Synthetic_Genomics.pdf) Google Scholar