GENTECH archive


No shift in terminology

* Original date  : 2 Dec 1998 14:27:43
* Original is by :                        (6:751/401)
* Original is to : rverzola                           (6:751/401)
* Full text below: 

		    Biopiracy or Bioprivateering?
			-- Richard Stallman

For decades, new drugs have often been found in exotic animals and
plants.  Nowadays, genes from rare species and subspecies are also
useful in genetic engineering of new breeds for agriculture.  The
drugs, and now the new breeds as well, are typically patented.
This causes trouble for developing countries that could use them.

Patent monopolies on plant and animal varieties, on genes, and on new
medicines, threaten to harm developing countries in three ways.
First, by raising prices so far that most citizens have no access to
these new developments; second, by blocking local production when the
patent owner so chooses; third, for agricultural varieties, by
forbidding farmers to continue breeding them as has been done for
thousands of years.

Just as the United States, a developing country in the 1800s, refused
to recognize patents from advanced Britain, today's developing
countries need to protect their citizens' interest by shielding them
from such patents.  To prevent the problems of monopolies, don't
establish monopolies.  What could be simpler?

But developing countries need support from world opinion in order to
do this.  It means going against a view that companies strongly
advocate: that biotech company investors are entitled to monopolies,
regardless of how they affect anyone else.

To challenge an idea which is backed by so much money is not easy.  So
some have proposed the concept of "biopiracy" as an alternative
approach.  Instead of opposing the existence of biological monopolies,
this approach aims to give the rest of the world a share in the
profits from them.  The claim is that biotechnology companies are
committing "biopiracy" when they base their work on natural varieties,
or human genes, found in developing countries or among indigenous
peoples--and therefore they ought to be required to pay "royalties"
for this.

"Biopiracy" is appealing at first glance, because it takes advantage
of the current trend towards more and bigger monopoly powers.  It goes
with the flow, not against.  But it will not solve the problem.

The reason is that useful varieties and genes are not found everywhere
or with even distribution.  Some developing countries and indigenous
peoples will be lucky, and receive substantial funds from such a
system, at least for the twenty years that a patent lasts; a few may
become so rich as to cause cultural dislocation, with a second episode
to follow when the riches run out.  Meanwhile, most of these countries
and peoples will get little or nothing from this system.  Biopiracy
royalties, like the patent system itself, will amount to a kind of

The biopiracy concept presupposes that natural plant and animal
varieties, and human genes, have an owner as a matter of natural
right.  Once that assumption is granted, it is hard to question the
idea that an artificial variety, gene or drug is property of the
biotechnology company by natural right, and thus hard to deny the
investors' demand for total and world-wide power over using it.

The idea of "biopiracy" offers the multinationals, and the governments
that work for them, an easy way to cement forever the regime of
monopolies.  With a show of magnanimity, they can concede a small part
of their income to a few lucky indigenous peoples; from then on, when
anyone questions whether biological patents are a good idea, they can
cite these indigenous peoples along with the fabled "starving genius
inventor" to paint such questioning as plundering the downtrodden.

What people outside the developed world really need, for their
agriculture and medecine, is to be exempt from all such monopolies.
They need to be free to manufacture medicine without paying royalties
to multinationals.  They need to be free to grow and breed all sorts
of plants and animals for agriculture; and if they are interested in
using genetic engineering, they should be free to commission the
genetic modifications that suit their needs.  A lottery ticket for a
share of royalties from some varieties and genes is no compensation
for losing these freedoms.

It is indeed wrong for biotech companies to convert the world's
natural genetic resources into private monopolies--but the wrong is
not a matter of taking someone else's rightful property, it is
privatizing what ought to be public.  These companies are not
biopirates.  They are bioprivateers.