Monday, June 21, 2004

Open Source Life

What happens when a bio-cracker unleashes a plant virus on all the wheat in North America, and the genetic code to "Wheat 2.0" is closed-source, patented code owned by a corporation? Should life be Open Source?
Lately there's been a lot of debate about the virtues and perils of genetically modified life. A few weeks ago, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser lost an epic David vs. Goliath- legal battle against Monsanto, the maker of seeds with a patented gene. The court narrowly sided with Monsanto, which sued Schmeiser in 1997 after company agents found a patented gene in canola plants Schmeiser's farm. The farmer argued that the seed had blown into his field from a neighboring farm. One of the central issues to this case is whether a corporation (or other person) has the right to patent the blueprints to life. It's a highly controversial issue, and it ultimately touches on the meaning of life and the course of humanity through the centuries. I'm not a lawyer or biologist, but it may be interesting to compare this issue to what's going on in the software industry. There are some clear similarities between genetic code (the blueprint for lifeforms) and software code (the instructions that define a computer program). The Economist recently published an article on the subject. One could argue that the biggest difference between genetic code and software code is that one is biologically based and the other is based on logic. A few years ago, that argument might have held up, but the biotech and nanotech industries have really blurred the lines. Something could be both a computer and a life form. Perhaps the greatest remaining difference between genetic code and software code is the history of its ownership. Software code is a 20th century invention, while genetic code has surrounded us long before we knew it existed. Software code was freely shared between people until the late 1970's, when corporations discovered they could make money with a proprietary model. In that model, customers can purchase or license a binary product, but not the actual source code. Today, the balance of power is moving to "Open Source", an ownership system where people are forced to share in exchange for the benefits of higher quality software, and more freedom in general. More and more people are discovering that sharing just makes sense, especially when you get into issues of security and reliability. Genetic code has never really been owned. Or has it? Most people believe the universe didn't just pop out of nowhere; that there was/is some form of creator at a higher level or dimension. I happen to believe in God, but my point here is that something other than life created life; We did not create ourselves. Therefore, if genetic code is owned, we are not the owners. We didn't create the prior art. But it goes beyond strictly the ownership. It's clear that the genetic code to, say, an apple tree, has been explicitly shared with me and everyone on the planet. I can plant an apple tree, but it's unfair for me to restrict my neighbor from taking advantage of the same genetic code if a seed falls on his land. If I sell my apples, my customers are free to plant the seeds contained within each apple. I don't own the invention itself, but I'm free to make as many instances (trees) as I want, and I can't prevent others from doing the same. It's a lot like software's GPL license. So what happens when somebody takes that publically-owned (or God-owned, depending on your point of view) invention and patents it? Well, you can't do that in the software industry (not with GPL'd code, anyway). But isn't that exactly what the biotech companies are doing? They start off with publically-owned code, and use it as the basis for a proprietary product. In the early eighties, Richard Stallman started the Free Software Foundation, with the goal of preserving people's rights to use public software. The resulting licensing models were an improvement over the old "public domain" system, which didn't protect code from becoming locked up. If software licenses could be applied to life, I would argue that genetic code was really Open Source all along, not public domain. It originated (or originates) with a creation process, and that higher power explicitly wants the code to be shared among itself. Humans can use life to build proprietary objects, such as a wooden house, but we can't (or shouldn't be able to) build proprietary life itself. We don't own that kind of license. This isn't an argument for or against genetic modification. I'm simply suggesting that genetic modifications shouldn't bypass centuries-old freedoms. In the case of canola, farmers have been improving their seeds for centuries. Farmers always had the expectation that their improvements would remain free. They didn't have a framework for protecting that freedom, because they didn't need it. Today, their work continues to be "improved" upon, but the most important ingredient is missing: Freedom. There are some practical reasons why locking up genetic code can (and probably will) have disasterous consequences. To begin, consider the quality difference between open vs. closed source software. When you've got hundreds or thousands of programmers worldwide who have access to the source code, it tends to get better quickly. Bugs are noticed quickly and the repairs are made available to everyone, without reliance on a profit-motivated entity. Eric Raymond, a leading Open Source advocate, has outlined this phenomenon in his paper, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. When you think about all the computer viruses, worms, and the world's increasing reliance on computers, we should be happy (and, frankly, surprised) that none of these epidemics have done any real damage -- like deleting millions of users' data, shutting down the supply chain, or worse. Terrorists use the Internet too. In software, the silly thing is that practically all of humanity is relying on a single profit-driven corporation to fix their security holes. Should we really be putting global security in the hands of any software company? That's why Free/Open Source is better: Every single user is allowed and encouraged to improve the product, and everyone benefits from the improvements. The question becomes much scarier when applied to life: What happens when a bio-cracker unleashes a plant virus on all the wheat in North America, and the genetic code to "Wheat 2.0" is closed-source, patented code controlled by a corporation? When you think about genetic code as software, it's hard to understand why farmers would willingly subject themselves to the kind of vendor lock-in and licensing that has squelched innovation in the software industry for the past two decades. Maybe they're still in the honeymoon phase of this relationship, or maybe economic factors give them little choice. But the bigger issue is moral. I don't really care that half the software on my computer is proprietary. But for someone to lock up the genetic code to life is, in my opinion, crossing some kind of moral line. Can life be owned, copyrighted, or patented? Should it be Open Source? Maybe we should think about that.