Tycoon seeks patent for 'minimal genome'
The man who led the private-sector effort to sequence the human genome is seeking exclusive commercial rights to the bare essentials for life in the hope of one day creating a living organism from scratch.And speaking of Bill Gates, Timothy B. Lee reports that Bill Gate's latest effort to stop "open source" - free software is to patent everything and sue the competition.
It is not Craig Venter's first brush with controversy. His company Celera raced publicly-funded researchers to sequence the human genome. Now his research institute is trying to patent a "minimal genome", which could be used to make synthetic life forms.
Some activists fear that Venter will create a "microbesoft" monopoly in the burgeoning area of synthetic biology – a supercharged form of biotechnology that aims to create living "machines". The patent has also annoyed biologists who are trying to foster an open-source movement. But the claim that Venter is about to become the Bill Gates of synthetic biology is wide of the mark, say his scientific rivals.
A Patent Lie
WHAT a difference 16 years makes. Last month, the technology world was abuzz over an interview in Fortune magazine in which Bradford Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, accused users and developers of various free software products of patent infringement and demanded royalties. Indeed, in recent years, Mr. Smith has argued that patents are essential to technological breakthroughs in software.Mr Lee points out that patents make it nearly impossible for individuals or small companies to innovate.
Microsoft sang a very different tune in 1991. In a memo to his senior executives, Bill Gates wrote, “If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today.” Mr. Gates worried that “some large company will patent some obvious thing” and use the patent to “take as much of our profits as they want.”
Mr. Gates wrote his 1991 memo shortly after the courts began allowing patents on software in the 1980s. At the time Microsoft was a growing company challenging entrenched incumbents like I.B.M. and Novell. It had only eight patents to its name. Recognizing the threat to his company, Mr. Gates initiated an aggressive patenting program. Today Microsoft holds more than 6,000 patents.
It’s not surprising that Microsoft — now an entrenched incumbent — has had a change of heart. But Mr. Gates was right in 1991: patents are bad for the software industry.
In contrast, the patent system is cumbersome and expensive. Applying for patents and conducting patent searches can cost tens of thousands of dollars. That is not a huge burden for large companies like Microsoft, but it can be a serious burden for the small start-up firms that produce some of the most important software innovations.If Craig Venter is successful innovation in microbiology will become much more difficult.
Yet, as the Vonage case demonstrates, participating in the patent system is not optional. Independent invention is not a defense to patent infringement, and large software companies now hold so many patents that it is almost impossible to create useful software without infringing some of them. Therefore, the only means of self-defense is the one Mr. Gates identified 16 years ago: stockpile patents to use as bargaining chips in litigation. Vonage didn’t do that, and it’s now paying a very high price.