Open Source Biotechnology



By analogy with software, open source biotechnology incorporates a distinctive approach to developing new biotechnologies, managing intellectual and other property rights relating to those technologies and delivering them to users.


Open source biotechnologies would be developed via a collaborative mode of production known as “bazaar governance” or “commons-based peer production”. 

This mode of production is not new, although it has achieved greater prominence with the advent of the Internet.  Nor is it limited to the production of “knowledge” goods like biotechnology or software. However, bazaar production is thought to be particularly well suited to the production of knowledge goods because of its strengths in harnessing information and human creativity.

Defining features of “bazaar” production include:

  1. integration of contributions from diverse participants.  These may include individuals (either hobbyists or professionals), commercial firms, and public or private non-profit research institutions;

  1. diverse motivations to contribute, none of which rely on the use of intellectual property rights to exclude other potential innovators; 

  1. self-direction by contributors to perform specific tasks on the basis of freely accessible information about the technology under production;

  1. low barriers to engagement, which blur the distinction between users and developers. Users can engage in technology development according to their own incentives and capacities, without the need for formal qualifications or commitments; and

  1. sharing of contributions on terms that permit broad, though not necessarily unlimited, freedom of access and freedom to operate (see next heading).

Note that bazaar production, like market production, is an ideal type. In biotechnology, as in software, real-life open source production systems would likely mix bazaar-style incentives with other types of incentives to invest in technology development.

What features define the open source approach?

The term “open source” is sometimes used interchangeably with the terms “open access” or “public domain” to describe approaches in which innovators donate their innovations to the general public with no strings attached.

Strictly speaking, however, open source does entail the use of intellectual property rights to impose conditions of access and use via technology licences. 

There are two main types of open source licence.

The first requires innovators who wish to build on the licensed technology to give credit (attribution) for previous work, but imposes few or no other obligations.

The second type of open source licence requires follow-on innovators to share some of their own output on the same terms as the original licence.

The purpose of this “share alike” obligation is to give both licensors and licensees ongoing access to a dynamic, legally protected technology commons.  Such a commons would incorporate updated versions of the original technology, as well as any new technologies based upon it.

Contrary to popular misconception, the share-alike obligation in some open source licences does not typically apply to all innovations that build on the licensed technology. Rather, it is triggered only by a defined subset of follow-on innovations that are released outside the licensee’s own organisation.

As with any other form of technology licensing, the choice of appropriate open source terms is highly context-dependent.  Any technologist who wishes to encourage others to use and/or build on his or her innovation must consider which terms are most likely to engender the desired engagement from other innovators and investors in that particular field.

Therefore, the first step in choosing an open source licence is to clarify one’s own goals in making the technology available on open source terms. 

This will typically be part of a larger decision about the optimal mode of technology transfer (or delivery to users: see next heading).

People and organisations who fund biotech R&D typically expect to see a return on their investment. Such a return may take the form of profits, new and socially useful applications, or both.

Because no return on investment can be realised unless the technology actually reaches users and consumers, any realistic model of biotech R&D must make adequate provision for technology transfer.  Open source is no exception.

Skeptics often question this aspect of open source biotechnology on the assumption that no-one would be prepared to meet the costs of delivering new open source biotechnology products, tools or services to end users.

It is true that open source biotechnology represents a radical departure from the “proprietary” model of technology transfer that predominates in some parts of the biotech, pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries.  This model treats technology transfer as synonymous with commercialisation, and commercialisation as synonymous with monopoly-based business models.

But this is an unnecessarily narrow view of technology transfer. New biotechnologies can be delivered to users via commercial  or non-commercial pathways, or a mix of both.  Further, each of these broad categories can encompass a wide variety of strategies. 

For example, non-commercial technology transfer does not automatically imply central planning by state bureaucrats. There also exist more sophisticated public funding mechanisms capable of reproducing the desirable qualities of a market-based approach. 

Similarly, commercial pathways may consist of a range of non-monopolistic business models.  Examples of these business models have been documented by management scholars in the field of open innovation.

Of course, it is important to acknowledge the challenges associated with moving from one mode of technology transfer to another, especially when the open source approach is relatively untested.

However, it could also be persuasively argued that an untested approach is better than one which has been tested, but appears to be failing.

Intellectual property


Janet Hope, Australian National University, 2009-