(Open Source, Open Science, Open Society, Orzya sativa)
  1. What is “the patent maze” and what does it have to do with crop improvement?

    The patent system and plant variety rights are supposed to create an incentive for invention by rewarding inventors and plant breeders with a temporary monopoly on new inventions and new cultivars of plants.

    In practice, however, there is an unfortunate side effect because modern crop improvements combine a number of technologies, which may be subject to patent applications in various countries by different companies. Thus, a farmer or some other creative person wanting to go ahead with implementation of a crop improvement may have to navigate a complex maze, or thicket, of competing rights.

    These rights can be a critical bottleneck because wherever any patents or other intellectual property rights are in force, the company that owns those rights can require license payments or stop others from reproducing, selling or even importing products that use the patented technology.

    If licenses are very costly or unavailable for even one of the multiple rights needed to practice a crop improvement, the whole effort can be effectively halted. Barriers can even be created by uncertainty about which licenses will be needed or available, discouraging investment.

  2. How does CAMBIA’s Patent Lens help to make intellectual property rights more transparent?

    The Patent Lens ( is a collection of tools to help reduce barriers to innovation that are created by uncertainty about patents, and also to help innovators find technology they can use. With a fast search engine developed by CAMBIA, it’s possible to find descriptions of technology in

    • patent applications that were never granted,
    • patents not in force in particular countries where the right to file has been exhausted,
    • patents with narrow claims that don’t cover as much as the application described, and
    • patents that are lapsed or withdrawn,

    all indicators of tools that may be used in certain places without the need for a license.

    In the joint work, CAMBIA’s Patent Lens, already one of the most comprehensive cost-free full-text patent databases in the world, will be extended to include patents in major rice-growing countries, including China, Korea, and India, countries that will play lead roles in the next generation of biological problem solving.

    CAMBIA has already used patent analysis to develop the first explicitly ‘open source’ biotechnology toolkit, published in the journal Nature in February 2005. The claims covering the classic technique of plant gene transfer by Agrobacterium in hundreds of patents were bypassed using other symbiotic bacteria to add beneficial genes to rice and other plants.

    By shedding light on the dominant rights, “patent landscape” analyses will be a guide to where the minefields are, and where the green fields are.

    CAMBIA also plans to develop Patent Lens tools that will allow users to query the owners of the rights about licensing, and share comments about the descriptions in patents and patent maps. Our aim is to foster the capacity in the developing world to add to and create patent maps of current technologies and key emerging technologies.

  3. What are the key emerging technologies for which patent maps may be made?

    Patents on genes and promoters—the entire rice genomic sequence has been made public, but companies have still been able to file patent applications claiming the rights to use many of the genes in the rice genome, and sequences that control their expression (often called “promoters”). CAMBIA has already developed a work-around to many “promoter” patents, which is freely available to all who’ve agreed to the terms of a BiOS license. The IRRI-CAMBIA project is preparing a publication on patent constraints over rice genes, and promoters effective in rice that are available for use is the subject of a related study sponsored by WIPO.

    Here are some other things on which we’d like to see studies;  perhaps you can help!  Contact us at

    • Gene silencing technologies such as RNAi have become a focus of much patent application activity, and such patents or uncertainty about them can prevent use of the genomic sequence information that has often been obtained at public expense. The same is often true of microarray technologies, used to understand gene expression as well as to accelerate classical plant breeding methods (CAMBIA has developed a genomic microarray invention that bypasses gene sequencing for high throughput marker assisted selection, freely available to all who’ve agreed to the terms of a BiOS license). We seek to create technology landscapes for each of these emerging technologies.
    • Homologous recombination is a process of making precise, natural genetic enhancements. Homologous recombination occurs naturally in all organisms, and especially frequently in organisms that have to survive and reproduce in very diverse stressful environments. Homologous Allelic Recombination Technologies, HARTs are tools that allow the replacement of a small portion of DNA sequence. Some of the methods used for HARTs have already become the subject of patent mazes. These are targets for us because they can have broad applications in all life sciences technologies, from public health to agriculture.
    • Apomixis is the technical term for a process for obtaining true breeding hybrids of crop species that would allow farmers in developing countries to use hybrid seed year after year. Currently, farmers may be forced to return to multinational seed companies year after year to maintain genetically improved crops. Apomixis is the functional opposite of “terminator” technologies, turning some of the same tools to an empowerment use. Key genes and tools involved in plant reproduction, many already subject to patent applications, could be important to enable apomixis in diverse crop species.
  4. What is Open Source Biotechnology?

    BiOS (Biological Innovation for Open Society) is also sometimes called “Biological Open Source” because it merges cutting-edge patent informatics with collaborative development and dissemination of “enabling” molecular technology in an approach similar to Open Source software.

    Open source works by permitting innovators dispersed worldwide to use and improve technology after agreeing to conditions that help prevent formation of patent thickets blocking delivery. In software, from individual coders to major corporations, the developers and users agree via open source licensing to protect the capability to use and improve the software, from advanced business applications to “basic”, bottom-of-the-stack tools such as operating systems.

    Businesses that own intellectual property in the software field often license it under open source to protect and advance rapid development and debugging. The BiOS Initiative aims to advance nutrition and food security in a similar way, by protecting the capability to use and improve basic biotechnology and genetic resource toolkits.

  5. What is IRRI?

    IRRI, an autonomous international institute based in Los Banos, The Philippines, is one of the foundation institutions of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), and is dedicated to improving the lives and livelihoods of resource poor rice producers and consumers worldwide.

    IRRI has been at the forefront of rice research for almost thirty years, delivering new rice varieties and practices to rice farmers throughout Asia and the developing world. Now, rice has become the model system for grain crops worldwide, with its entire DNA sequence known; but the ‘mining’ – and patenting – of this genetic resource and the possibility that the tools to improve it could be restricted by broad patents has raised legitimate concerns that must be met head-on.

  6. What is CAMBIA?

    CAMBIA, based in Canberra Australia, is an independent non-profit institute that invents and shares enabling technologies and new practices for life sciences and intellectual property management to further social equity.

    CAMBIA is the founder of the BiOS Initiative, the Patent Lens ( and the online collaboration platform BioForge ( CAMBIA technologies, including TransBacter, GUSPlus and Diversity Arrays, a genome diversity mapping technology, are made freely available under BiOS licenses, in return for agreement to share the technology and improvements with others.

    BiOS licenses and the online collaboration community exist to optimize these open source enabling technologies, and to protect and maintain capabilities to use the technologies throughout the developed and developing world.