Open Source Biotechnology



Open source biotechnology can be thought of as a treatment for a disease of the innovation system caused by excessive private control over information goods. This disease disrupts the flow of information among people and institutions that is central to the process of innovation.

Intellectual property controversy

Open source biotechnology has its roots in a tradition of skepticism about intellectual property rights that dates as far back as the introduction of patent monopolies in the middle ages.

This tradition is currently enjoying a revival as a reactions against extensive encroachment of private property rights on the “intellectual commons” during the latter part of the twentieth century. This encroachment affects a broad range of technological and cultural activities, including software development and biotechnology R&D.

In software, creeping propertisation has been challenged by the emergence of the free and open source software movement.

In biotechnology, dramatic expansion of patent protection has sparked concerns about overly broad individual patents and/or patent portfolios, as well as the potential for a “tragedy of the anticommons” (see box).

These and other symptoms of intellectual property-mediated “disease” present differently according to the structure and dynamics of the affected industry.

Why do we need open source biotechnology?

The two industry sectors that currently rely most heavily on biotechnology as an enabling technology are medicine and agriculture.


A central argument for granting intellectual property rights is that they provide a needed economic incentive to invest in high-risk innovative activities.

But there is good evidence that biotechnology and other pharmaceutical patents do not generate enough incentive for rights holders to invest in the most socially valuable innovation.

According to this evidence, less than 5 per cent of global expenditure on biomedical research and development is directed towards developing treatments for serious diseases that affect millions of the world’s poorest people every year.

While some drugs developed primarily for rich country markets can also be used to treat diseases prevalent in poor countries, patents keep prices high through a combination of direct and indirect mechanisms.

To the extent that patent rights suppress competition, they also negatively affect both the affordability and availability of existing treatments.


In the field of agriculture, the use of molecular biotechnologies to facilitate conventional plant breeding and introduce new crop traits has been touted as a solution to problems of poverty and food insecurity.

In reality, most developing countries have little capacity for this type of research.  Meanwhile, international public sector funding for agricultural research has been stagnant or declining for several decades, leaving developed country researchers narrowly focused on domestic priorities.

As in the case of biomedicine, private sector research and development priorities in both developed and developing countries tend to reflect the needs of large commercial operations that target mass markets in rich countries.

Expanding intellectual property rights do not appear to have made any positive difference to these incentives. Public sector researchers face difficulties negotiating access to needed research tools, while in the private sector, industry consolidation has led to a reduction in competition.

As a result, new traits that might be useful to poor farmers and consumers have not been forthcoming. At the same time, traditional agricultural practices that save farmers money and help them conserve genetic diversity have been reframed as intellectual property infringement.

What is a “tragedy of the anticommons”?

In a tragedy of the commons, a commonly owned resource (such as a lake or pasture) is destroyed by overuse because no one person has sufficient incentive to look after it.

A tragedy of the anticommons is the opposite: the resource is underused because it has been divided up into too many small parcels owned by different people who have insufficient incentive to cooperate.

Janet Hope, Australian National University, 2009-