Untangling biological ownership under open source regime through DIYbio

Daphne Esquivel-Sada (University of Ottawa)

This communication aims to shed some light on an usually overlooked yet crucial dimension in scholarship about the open source regime, namely, the peculiar and paradoxical relationship of this model to ownership, all the more when it is transposed into biotechnosciences. I report on the results of an empirical qualitative study of the Do-it-yourself bio (DIYbio) network, based on discourse analysis of 25 qualitative interviews, conducted mostly in North America, with members of the network. Seen as an embodiment of “open science” and “open innovation”, DIYbio endeavours to bring molecular biology and biotechnological tools to the hands of the “public” for individual autonomous use, freeing these tools of political, social, and normative institutional grips. Because of the proximity of DIYbio to hacker ethos and the open source development model, the tendency is to believe, more or less implicitly, that DIYbio epitomizes a movement of opposition to the patent system on biotic entities, or at least that it holds a critical distance from the intellectual property (IP) regime underlying such system.  

Following the results, the reality appears to be rather well more nuanced and complex. Drawing on interdisciplinary science studies scholarship, especially around hacker culture and biotechnologies, the analysis unravels how IP and patent rights over biological entities are seen and thought by the participants. It shows that even though adepts of DIYbio do tend to express eminently discordant visions with regards to the traditional patent system and sympathetic ones to the open source model, the overwhelming majority of them remain attached to the application of intellectual property rights to living organisms for distinct reasons. Lastly, the analysis reveals that the open source system can coexist functionally with the traditional IP system, while pushing to its paroxysm the sense of ownership over living entities, leveraging a symbolic regime of ownership.