Open Source Biotechnology



Inspired by the success of free and open source software, open source biotech is...

A blueprint

One way to view open source biotechnology is as a  blueprint - a set of practical principles for designing social institutions to support innovation. 

An open source biotech blueprint addresses various aspects of the innovation process, including:

  1. managing research collaborations;

  2. licensing intellectual property; and

  3. delivering new technologies to users via commercial and/or non-commercial pathways.

This approach to innovation differs from the conventional (proprietary) approach in several important respects, outlined here.

In its original context, “open source” refers to software source code.  Open source code is:

  1. (1)readily accessible to anyone who receives a copy of the binary (executable) version of the relevant software program; and

  2. (2) free from legal encumbrances commonly found in software copyright licence agreements.

What is open source biotechnology?

Because there is no direct technical equivalent of source code in biotechnology, the term “open source” is not straightforwardly descriptive.

Instead, it signals a translation process in which the institutional design elements of open source software development are re-interpreted in a new setting.

A metaphor

Open source biotechnology is also a way to make sense of open source as a generic concept - as distinct from one that is specific to software development.

Exploring how open source principles could be applied in another field  helps us to understand the deep structure of this phenomenon, which challenges many conventional assumptions about the nature of innovation. 

It also permits us to see how those assumptions operate to sustain the prevailing proprietary approach to research and development in medicine, agriculture and elsewhere.

A movement

Finally, open source biotechnology can be seen as a nascent movement comprising:

  1. scientists;

  2. intellectual property managers;

  1. social entrepreneurs; and

  2. scholars in the disciplines of law, economics and innovation management.

Although it is possible to identify a number of individuals and groups who are actively working to make open source biotechnology a reality, this is not a movement defined by its leaders.

Instead, it takes the form of a diverse community of interest focused on the translation of open source principles from software to the life sciences. 

Similarly, while proponents may receive government, philanthropic and/or corporate funding to develop or implement their own versions of open source biotechnology, the concept itself is not associated with any particular organisation.

Need more detail?

For more on the defining features of open source biotechnology, go here.

For more on reasons why self-interested actors might choose to participate, go here.

Alternatively, you might find the information you are looking for in the book, BioBazaar, which you can download here.

Janet Hope, Australian National University, 2009-