Biopiracy or Bioprivateering?

By Richard Stallman
Thursday 24 September 2009 by anik

For decades, new drugs have been found in exotic animals and plants. Genes from rare species and subspecies are also useful in producing new breeds, whether by genetic engineering or ordinary cross-breeding. The drugs, and nowadays 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. It means going against treaties that these companies have prevailed on the US to force through threats of economic warfare on most of the world.

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, because the problem stems from the trend that this concept legitimizes and fails to criticize.

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 lottery.

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 the use of it.

The idea of "biopiracy" offers the multinationals, and the governments that work for them, an easy way to cement forever their 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. (This behavior pattern is widespread among business today. For instance, the "music industry" lobbies for increased copyright powers in the name of musicians, who they like to call the "creators", while paying musicians only 4% of the companies’ total income.)

What people outside the developed world really need, for their agriculture and medicine, 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 decide to use genetic engineering, they should be free to commission the genetic modifications that suit their needs. A lottery ticket for a share of royalties from a few 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 a matter of privatizing what ought to be public. These companies are not biopirates. They are bioprivateers.

Copyright (C) 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

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