Just as the telecommunications industry pushed for the privatization of the electromagnetic spectrum, the biotechnology industry seeks to do the same with the most basic components of nature, i.e. the genes that underlie all forms of life. The argument is that genes hold important information, and if a biotechnologist combines that information to create new organisms, then these should be capable of being registered or patented in some way.
The first case of an attempt to patent an organism occurred in 1979 when microbiologist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty wanted to obtain a patent for a microorganism genetically designed to remove oil from the sea. The U.S. Supreme Court approved the application, making it the first case of a patent on a genetically modified organism (GMO). That is, a living being was owned by a person or company and could be exploited commercially on an exclusive basis.
Just a few months after that ruling, Genentech, the first biotechnology company, went public with an offer of one million shares at $35 a share. Within a few hours, one of the biggest stock market rises in history took place.
Against the intellectual property of life
Since that case, it is legally possible to patent any genetic code and also human cell lines, tissues and organs, including genetically modified human embryos. However, not everyone agreed with this form of commercial exploitation. The biggest opponent was the Foundation on Economic Trends (FOET).
After spending decades fighting this legislative drift in patent offices, courts and legislative chambers, in 2002 FOET brought together 250 organizations from 50 countries at the World Social Forum in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre to support a genetic commons, that is, the philosophy that genes cannot be privatized and should be resources that belong to no one (or to all of us).
The commons is made up of the things we inherit and create together and which we hope to pass on to future generations. And those who defend the genetic commons understand that the code of life falls into this category.
In the field of agriculture, another strong opponent of patents stands out: Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), an NGO that fights to conserve the planet's plant genetic resources. In fact, they are the ones behind the construction of the underground seed store on a small island in the Svalbard archipelago: they call it the vault of the end of the world and it is designed to preserve biodiversity in the event of a catastrophe.
Despite the fact that it is becoming cheaper and more accessible to participate in the biotechnology industry, and that there are more incentives than ever to patent a GMO, these and other organizations are winning small battles. An example of this took place in 2013, when a court unanimously ruled that genes related to breast cancer could not be patented by the company Myriad Genetics.
These are timid advances towards the genetic commons that are powerfully reminiscent of attempts to move software from copyright to copyleft, giving rise to common open projects such as Wikipedia or Linux.
Yet the battle remains uneven: the benefits of privatising GMOs have even led to talk of the bioeconomy (a term coined by Mexico's Juan Enriquez Cabot and his Life Science Project founding partner, Rodrigo Martinez): a force so powerful that it provides a quarter of all U.S. wealth.