Should Synthetic Biology go "open source"?
With the rise of the home computer in the second half of the 20th century more and more people became not only users of software, but also developers of software. They opened a door to a fascinating world: You don't need huge machinery and manpower to develop software products, but only a home computer. Quickly people became aware of flaws in commercial problems some of which could be easily fixed if only the source code was available. But the software companies kept these source codes secret for they considered them their intellectual property.
The result of this situation was the emergence of the open source movement.
In many aspects the situation of Synthetic Biology today is somewhat similar. The construction of physical DNA becomes more and more affordable and as time progresses actively taking part in the field of Synthetic Biology becomes an option for more and more people.
To bring the entire scientific community forward it should ideally be possible for everyone to use the research that has already been done by other people and work with it create new knowledge. A big problem in this is the existence of patents.
Why do we have patents?
Patents were initially created to ensure the inventor of a new technology the profit that can be made with it. If somebody owns a patent on something, nobody else is legally allowed to make commercial use of it or something else derived from it. Essentially it ensured that inventors or scientists can make a living doing research.
Patents on life
When scientist became able to analyze and alter the genetic code of living organisms and thus the organisms themselves it appeared obvious that they should also be able to protect their research using patents. However, the discussion if patents on life should be legal is a topic of its own and goes far beyond the purpose of this wiki.
Patents vs free research
The benefit for researchers from patents is clear: The can publish their work without the fear of somebody else using it to make profit. But there are also some downsides: As said before researchers would ideally wish to be able to use all research results that are out there. But a lot of patents means a lot of access restrictions: You can't just use patented DNA and build your research on it.
How can "open source biologists" survive?
Software companies have found ways to make their products open source and still earn money. For example Red Hat deals with Linux distributions. Linux is an open source operation system, which means people can get the source code for free, compile and then use it. However big firms often do not want to deal with this on themselves. Who installs all the systems, maintains them and most important who is responsible if something goes wrong? This is were firms like Red Hat come in: they offer their customers service and maintenance for open source products.
Analogically a company dealing with non patented biological products must find a way to earn their money not only by selling their product but by offering services supporting it. They have the advantage (in comparison to software firms) that their business is still not that trivial that people can do it in their kitchen.
If they manage to build an enterprise that is not only aimed at short profit and is designated to support customers on a long term basis, it might be a way to make a living on biotechnology without havin to restrict it. In the end everybody profits from freely available research bases.