Team:Oxford/P&P intellectual property


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Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property is an increasingly important and controversial aspect of scientific advance, and synthetic biology is perhaps the paradigmatic area illustrating the effects of growing legal influence. When thinking about how teams could turn their ideas from iGEM projects into viable real-world solutions, we realized that intellectual property is a crucial area to address.

Our team has produced a report exploring how teams can approach this task and how iGEM intellectual property policy can make the transition easier.

We begin with a brief overview of current intellectual property law (specifically relevant to the UK) before progressing to look at the challenges this poses for the iGEM competition. A number of different approaches which iGEM might choose to adopt towards intellectual property are discussed and the pros and cons of each are assessed. We then asked a range of interested groups, including iGEM students, professionals, and the public, for their views before concluding with recommendations for addressing intellectual property concerns in iGEM. We offer our conclusions in the form of advice to students, to the iGEM foundation, and briefly explore how a change in the law could have consequences for iGEM. This advice is purely based on our own views and our research which we hope will make interesting food for thought - it is not professional legal advice and should not be relied on as such!

Our policy research in relation to students, the iGEM foundation, and policy makers is summarized below, or download the full report to learn more about our work.
Team Policy

Dealing with intellectual property is not only necessary on the level of the competition - each team must also make decisions as to how they wish to deal with the intellectual property they will acquire during the course of their project. Deciding whether to file a patent application can be a tricky decision - below are just some of the factors you might want to take into consideration…

Oxford iGEM 2014
Attitudes Survey

We conducted a survey of attitudes within iGEM teams to intellectual property. The results, illustrated below, are analysed in detail in our report. Broadly, we found a noticeable lack of understanding of IP issues (confirming the findings of University of British Columbia iGEM team 2013 - check out their great work on IP which we used as a starting point for our own research at, and a great deal of social-mindedness in the responses.

For a complete analysis of our results, take a look at our Intellectual Property Report...



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  • The majority of teams (85%) appear to feel that there is at least the possibility that their project could be turned into a viable business or project – this makes sense given that many teams seek to use their project as an opportunity to use synthetic biology to address a problem.
  • Again, this chart shows how many teams believe their project is relevant to society. There was a split, slightly skewed towards commercial investment, in terms of the favoured means of funding, although it should be noted that many participants selected more than one option, suggesting mixed feelings and uncertainty on this question. Donation to the public domain was a popular option, indicating that many students support the BioBrick agreement and are keen to contribute their parts to it.
  • Responses to this question support the need for guidance for iGEM teams on IP issues. Possible explanations for this the larger than expected (29%) group selecting 'adequate' include: evidence of a Drunning-Kruger effect whereby people overestimate their level of knowledge; underestimating the significance and relevance of intellectual property law to synthetic biology; or a genuinely adequate understanding amongst students.
  • Sangamo patents zinc finger nuclease technology

    Sangamo's patent, titled "Nucleic acid binding proteins (zinc finger proteins design rules)", ensures that any use or production of zinc fingers with attached nucleases is the intellectual property of Sangamo.

  • The graph indicates that profit is the least important considerations to students, but all others ranked more or less equally overall. The most important factor overall was benefit to society.

Oxford iGEM 2014
Young Synthetic Biologists Intellectual Property Workshop

In the process of putting together our report and our guidance for iGEM teams, our team, in collaboration with the event organisers Philipp and Bethan of UCL iGEM, ran an intellectual property workshop at the Young Synthetic Biologists Conference 2.0 for other iGEMmers interested in the issue. The event was a great success; teams attending said 'I hadn't really appreciated just how big an impact this area of law could have on scientific development and particularly on synthetic biology - it's given me a lot to think about!'. We had a great time and there were some really interesting and insightful debates and comments - thanks especially to iGEM Cambridge for their passion on this topic!

Another team member stated, 'I don't think our team had really put much thought into the IP ownership of our project - it's definitely something we should consider though, as we would want to be able to stop anyone using our project for potentially harmful research'. 'I always thought IP was kind of a binary question - you either patent something, or you give it away. But there are so many options in between. It's a very nuanced area of law, I think that's the main thing I hadn't really appreciated, there are lots of different ways you can share or protect your ideas'.

View the Oxford iGEM powerpoint presentation used as the basis for our workshop below!

Special thanks for the success of this event are owed to:
Bethan Wolfenden and Philipp Boeing for organising and iGEM UCL for hosting the YSB event
Andrew Russell, Glen Gowers, and Philipp Lorenz
Dundee, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and all the other teams which attended and had such enthusiasm for the debate!
iGEM policy

Given its ever increasing prominence in the field of synthetic biology and its unavoidable influence on the future of the field, iGEM must cannot remain neutral on the matter of intellectual property. In the words of iGEM start-up Morph Bioinformatics, “iGEM must position itself and not only define its role in the world of biotech - but also how it sees the role of synbio”.

iGEM’s approach to intellectual property will be intrinsically related to its overall position and self-definition in this exciting emerging field. “It is time now to rationalize this 'big picture' and find a business model by treating the public, academia, biotech, pharma etc. as different units to optimize and synergize their outputs. And as with all business and communities the major factor of success is to follow one ultimate vision - and that should remain increasing the quality of life”.

iGEM’s approach to intellectual property being critical for the future of the competition, its teams, and even the future of synthetic biology, our report analyses three alternative approaches to iGEM in dealing with this legal issue.

The benefits and disadvantages of each are summarised in the tables below.: maintaining the status quo; complete openness; confidentiality clauses; reach through licence agreements.

Oxford iGEM 2014
Government Policy

Legislators have the difficult task of balancing a number of diverse and often conflicting intellectual property consideration. On the one hand, the government must incentivize innotvation - IP is an essential means of achieving this, as demonstrated by studies showing how patents can positively influence innovation by a margin of 15-25%2 .

The flipside of this is the responsibility of the government to prevent the creation of monopoly and to ensure that ideas are shared so as to maximize productive research. Again, there is research indicating that intellectual property is crucial to maintaining this balance, as some studies have expressed concerns that patents on initial discoveries may 'delay, hamper, or deter' innovations building on the patented work. The transaction cost of working with patented material is unattractive to many researchers, particularly individuals and start-ups.3.

Based on our research and our experiences during iGEM and in the field of IP, we believe that one of the most important roles for the government is to lead a new, more imaginative line of thinking about intellectual property protection, and to move away from analyzing these issues within the traditional and deeply engrained innovation v access dichotomy.

Creating legal mechanisms to support this kind of innovative and flexible thinking about IP will be increasingly important to synthetic biology and to iGEM as the field grows increasingly complex and the dynamics between the many different interested parties continue to evolve. In order to successfully balance the demands of the public interest, investors, the environment, researchers, and inventors we will need to be more open minded when considering how to deal with IP in the future. It will not suffice to simply ask whether 'to patent or not to patent' and suppose that this is the extent of the available options.

A further issue which we believe needs addressing by a change in the law is the current incapacity of the law to provide protection for computer code and algorithms. This is an issue which extends far beyond iGEM. Counter-intuitively, the lack of protection for algorithms means that this information can justifiably be kept secret rather than being visible and accessible to the public and/or regulators. The danger of this situation was demonstrated only recently by Facebook's so called 'social experiment' during which the company controlled the newsfeed content of users in an attempt to manipulate their emotions. Jim Sheridan, a member of the Commons Media Select Committee, expressed his 'worries about the ability of Facebook and others to manipulate people's thoughts in politics or other areas', and stressed the need for legislation in this area.

Similarly, some form of protection for computer algorithms might allow models relevant to the iGEM competition (and to synthetic biology more broadly) to be shared in a similar way to BioBricks. Engineer Leroy Lim, responsible for some of the modeling aspect of the project commented that it would have been highly useful to have models from previous years available at the beginning of the project. 'People would be far more likely to share their code and collaborate on this if we thought we'd get credit for our work...with companies it's even worse, there's no option but to keep your code to yourself because there's nothing else stopping competitors from taking everything you've developed and taking away your business'.

For full references see our Intellectual Property Report (downloadable above).

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