A Patent Grab for Power

The Australian,  August 20, 2007

The tools of modern science should be used to create wealth in society, writes Richard Jefferson | July 18, 2007

FOR thousands of years biological innovation was guided by keen observation and the accumulation and sharing of generations of practical knowledge.

Farmers selected better crop varieties and livestock breeds, and found out how to manage them to maximise their performance. Seeds were shared as a practical matter of survival and each improvement formed the basis for further innovation. Because the seeds of most crop plants bred true, it was easy to share and the barriers to doing so were minimal. This was the real origin of open source, a concept rediscovered recently by the software sector.

During the past 30 years there has been an unprecedented dynamism in life sciences that is hailed as a biotechnology revolution. But in this revolution, biotechnology is rarely applied to the critical issues of alleviating poverty, eliminating hunger, stewarding natural resources and preventing or curing the diseases of the disadvantaged. The profit margins are too small, the markets too modest and the challenges too great.

Today, control over agricultural biotechnology, for instance, is effectively limited to a few multinational corporations that integrate seeds, agrichemicals and biotechnology. They have accumulated extensive patent estates over the tools to do this, and the genes and platforms on which innovation happens.

This disturbing consolidation of power is matched by a trend towards "me-too", big-ticket innovations of remarkable dullness. How many herbicide-tolerant big acreage crops are enough?

Similar trends are surfacing among the large pharmaceutical companies: how many blockbuster lifestyle drugs does society need?

It requires vigorous, competitive, local-scale small to medium enterprises to address the myriad challenges of agriculture, environment and health that are mainly local in nature and modest in market or profit margins.

But this requires a culture in which the costs of innovation are low, the investment confidence strong, and the power and relevance of technology high.

The mission of Cambia, the Canberra-based international organisation that I founded, is to advance these capabilities so biological innovation can better address the human challenges of the 21st century. The goal is to ensure that the tools of innovation are powerful, affordable, shared and safe for all to use.

Open source software projects familiar to most include the Linux operating system and the Firefox web browser. These open source projects were co-developed by thousands of programmers and shared through creative licensing that keeps the resource for all to use and to profit from.

But how do you make money in open source? The answer is simple: not by selling open source but by using it. Most of the high-profile open source programs are tools and platforms rather than end-user applications. They allow users to build commercial applications on robust, dynamic platforms. The economic success stories of open source software are not Linux and Apache but eBay and Google.

This is what we should do with the tools, discoveries and platforms of modern science: use them to create value and wealth in society, not patent them to extract money from the system and drive up costs of real innovation.

The modern patent system was intended to advance the public good by trading the disclosure of ideas for a limited monopoly to allow an inventor to exploit their idea. Today, the bargain has degenerated into an instrument that is often misused and obstructs the public good.

For instance, until this week the text of Australian patents could not even be searched.

To the shared dismay of scientists and thoughtful citizens, the way patent systems are being used is often impeding innovation as a social enterprise and continuing to deprive most of the world's population of fundamentals such as adequate nutrition, access to healthcare services and clean water.

This does not have to be. It is up to us to reclaim science as a democratised tool for social advancement and wealth creation. It is up to us to write the terms of the compact.

It is up to us to move beyond rhetoric and into constructive engagement in reforming our innovation systems for economic robustness and social justice.

Richard Jefferson is the founder and chief executive of Cambia-BiOS, based in Canberra. This is an edited version of his Deakin Lecture delivered at the State Library of Victoria on Monday.

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