GPL for Artificial Life?

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The Economist is right on top of the story of the first fully synthetic life-form. For those of you who may have missed the announcement last week, Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have pushed the envelope again, demonstrating the first successful boot-up of a synthetic bacterium. Editors at the Economist argue that the only sensible way to protect ourselves from such creations is to require that the DNA sequences be open source. It is a profound insight.

It would not be the first time that open source saved humanity from Ventner's creative genius. I don't want to take anything away from Ventner as a talented and creative technician--he has solved a number of very tricky problems, and in so doing, has advanced the frontiers of human knowledge. And while his values might make him among those who worship Ayn Rand, they consistently threaten the rest of us who must live in the real world, with each other and with the consequences of our actions.

There was a time when the US Patent and Trademark Office had no idea what to do with patent applications that merely identified a genomic sequence and declared "it's a machine composed of amino acids that is put together in the following way". The Wikipedia article on the Human Genome Project tells how first the US PTO accepted all manner of random genomic sequences as novel inventions, then limited patents to machines that had a defined purpose, and then in 2000 President Bill Clinton further clarified that the Human Genome itself belonged to the public domain and could not be patented.

That decision was not some fiat decision made by the President, but a nod to the fact that the scientific and open source community, working in concert, did the lion's share of decoding and publishing that genome. By publishing first, we mooted the question of how much of our own DNA Craig Ventner's company should be allowed to own.

But now he's back, and he's built the one thing that sits as an exception to the Gene Patent exclusions: a wholly synthetic lifeform. Does Ventner really want to advance science (which he has done), or is he searching, like Charles Muntz, villain of the PIXAR movie UP, for his ultimate, exclusive patent on life?

We may not know, but Ventner's life forms are now multiplying, and what that may mean for humanity we may not also know. But The Economist argues, and I believe it is a very strong argument, that the only way we can protect ourselves from them is to ensure that we have their source code.  We may well need it sooner they we can imagine.

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Michael Tiemann is a true open source software pioneer. He made his first major open source contribution more than three decades ago by writing the GNU C++ compiler, the first native-code C++ compiler and debugger. His early work led to the creation of leading open source technologies and the first open source business model.

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