Discussion -- The Source Code of Life 

moderated by Timothy Druckrey   

Timothy Druckrey: I guess we have the answer for who will be the Microsoftof the future... Looks like Monsanto. Now we have time for a few questions.  

Audience: Could it be possible in the future to patent the gene that controls the development of the human brain, and then a manager could sue employees so that they are never able to do business again?  

Benny Haerlin: Did I understand you correctly that you think it might be possible that by patenting the genes that control thinking you migh claim a patent on thinking itself?  

Audience: On commercial thinking, because it is a commercial use of that gene.  

Benny Haerlin: There is a certain barrier to this, so far. The prerequisite for patenting a gene is that you must be able to isolate it, and basically to clone it into microorganisms. You cannot demand a license from humans, or animals, or even owners of animals for functioning properly just because you have understood a little bit about how it works. That is not possible yet.  

Audience: Do you propose any processes to us for stopping companies like Monsanto, aside from donating money to Greenpeace, which I do already?  

Benny Haerlin: I'm glad to hear you do that already. But yes, I think there are two major ways to do this. One is, as long as Monsanto cannot sell its products in the end, this will be no good business. This is what happens in Europe at the moment, European consumers have basically refused to eat GMOs and that has major repercussions in the US market already. There are big companies like ADM which pay farmers an extra price for planting non-GM soybeans. So this is the most simple way to fight back. The second is more on a scientific, or professional level, beyond our capacities as consumers, one way to prevent things from being patented is to publish them. If they are no longer new, they cannot be patented. Probably, especially for those who are in the information business, that is one way to think about how to really subvert patenting of DNA.  

Audience: To draw a line from what you said -- and what is really shocking to me -- to the central topic of this conference: what you described could happen to the software industry or to our open source projects as well if they introduce the same insane patent laws that they already have in the U.S. From your experiences with the genetics industry, do you think it is possible to have these strange laws that exist in America in Europe too? The European law system is a bit different. Do you think it could happen here as well?  

Benny Haerlin: I see a hope that it would not be possible, but on the other side, the major argument of regulators and lawmakers here in Europe has always been: if we don't follow, then we will have a competitive disadvantage. Everybody is afraid to be left behind. That is the power of these companies, that they can say, if you don't do this then we will go to another country, if you don't do this then you will lose your competitive advantage. This is something that many European lawmakers are quite open to, which is a difficult situation, even though it is complete bullshit because European companies can patent as they wish to the degree the U.S. system allows them to, and U.S. companies can only patent to the degree the European system allows them to. My bigger hope and expectation is that many so called developing countries don't buy this kind of intellectual property law. Not only because of the reason that I gave, but simply because they feel they would lose rather than win from such a patent system. Usually those countries that don't have a strong national science force tend to want to copy from outside and don't want to have too high barriers to this copying within their borders.  

Audience: I think it was a great contribution, but I have an issue with your title. Is there something like the source code of life? If that exists, then where is the machine that you run it on? I don't see that as a very reasonable proposition, it seems more like a kind of imperialistic metaphor that implies that life is some kind of information. I don't think we should buy that kind of thinking.  

Benny Haerlin: This is something we should discuss in depth later on, but I agree with you. I would be very reluctant to call DNA the code of life, as it has been depicted very often. We have understood a part of how life organizes itself, and certainly DNA, the genetic information is a central part of that, but probably in a few decades we will look at DNA itself as a type of hardware rather than as a software itself. I think the basic difference between developing whatever code for computers and trying to understand this code of life, or whatever you want to call it, is, in the one case you create this program and in the other you look at this very well functioning program and try to figure out what is what, and that is a big difference.  

Audience: Do they already know what function these genes have or do they just patent the sequence?  

Benny Haerlin: They don't know. I mean in some cases they know some of the functions. I would not dare to say that they don't know in any case, but in the majority of cases it is just a guess. It is a kind of standard phrase: 'you have to prove that it is of some use' and then they say 'it might be of use against cancer, aids, high blood pressure, and what not' and that's enough. There is even a new wave of not only patenting an entire gene with a complete function, but even patenting pieces of it which have a certain functionality which has been recently understood. So you can even try to get a patent on pieces of a competing company's gene. No, they don't know what they are patenting in many cases. This is one of the most outrageous facts, that they didn't even discover what they patented.  

Audience: Just a short question. If the first genetic patents roughly correspond with the privatization of scientific research and development, or the commercialization of them, can you imagine a future where that research and development is de-privatized or goes back to the state, and do you think that would be better?  

Benny Haerlin: Tricky question to an old lefty like me. I have to admit that I don't believe in the state in its conventional form taking over again, this has less to do with science than with more general issues. I think this privatization or the ultimate victory of capitalism, if you wish, has to be overcome by new concepts of public domain or public control which are beyond the conventional social-democratic or even Stalinist concepts of public control. [applause]  

Audience: It seems similar to the 'fear, uncertainty, and doubt' campaigns in the software industry. I think the common pattern in software, engineering, life sciences industries, is that there is a stong concentration and monopolies arising. Do you think there should be a mechanism for keeping these companies from getting too big, perhaps splitting them like AT&T into several Baby-Bells? Or do you think that you would have to fight more enemies if you had more of smaller companies? Or would you think it would be a good idea to have global public instruments to split big companies into not so dangerous parts?  

Benny Haerlin: Actually, Mr. Glickmann, the Secretary of Agriculture in the United States, just this week, came up with this question. I found that interesting because so far the USDA has been Monsanto's best friend. For the first time he said that he feels that the extent of concentration is threatening farmers in the United States, and it should be re-thought. One of the points is that Monsanto wants to take over the most important cotton company in the United States, Delta & Pine Land Co. This has still not been approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, I think they are responsible for that. There is concern about this concentration in many governments these days. I personally have the impression that this concentration could take many different shapes and if there was a kind of anti-trust legislation against these big companies, then they could easily find ways for getting the same kind of control with three different labels on their doors. I think that the cooperation that already takes place between these big companies is probably not fully explored yet. It is not a real competition in many fields already, even among these big companies. I don't belive that dividing Monsanto into three different pieces will change the game.  

(Transkription Diana McCarty)