Rick Harrington's Reviews > Who Owns You: The Corporate Gold Rush to Patent Your Genes

Who Owns You by David R. Koepsell
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Jun 01, 09

Read in May, 2009

(radically unfinished review - read at your own risk)

This is a rare book. It stakes out its territory right at the inflection point where past turns in to future, and where all the debates and arguments must be held about directions for our human development. It is, finally, political, radical and even revolutionary, as well as being a scholarly work of lucid philosophy and well argued law.

Who Owns You lays out a schematic for those debates which we as informed citizens must engage or suffer a return to serfdom; commoners without a commons. It points out specific transgressions already made in a direction that is or soon will be toxic for our collective humanity beyond the castle walls of corporate empire.

This is a very important book. It defines our boundaries. It explores our limits; not the limits of knowledge or consciousness, but as social animals, trying to get along without suffering ownership as something less than human.

"Territory" is what "letters patent" from the crown once granted proprietorship over. Now that all real property has pretty much been spoken for, what is contested are discoveries - more properly intentional inventions - of things and processes which never before existed.

Dr. Koepsell takes care to distinguish among aesthetic and utilitarian production - copyright and patent - and tokens vs. forms as patentable or copyrightable human creation. With stunning clarity, the history and usage of important terms are set out, such that natural law can be distinguished from technological processes and ideas from their expression. Production which can both be "enclosed" and distinguished from common sense is or may be properly patentable. Discoveries of that which cannot be enclosed nor attributable to intentional expression are excluded from private ownership, and must be protected for common use.

The case is made with exquisite precision that it has been a mistake, both ethically and legally, to allow the patenting of gene sequences. Furthermore, the process to isolate specific genetic anomalies may constitute a kind of expropriation of what properly belongs to the individual from whose tissues these patterns have been isolated. A case is made that there may be cause to expand legal definitions for privacy, ownership, and the commons to accommodate the advancements in basic science which have made gene sequencing possible. This case is supported not only ethically, legally, and philosophically, but also with regard to its practical impact on scientific advancement and economic stimulus.

If one did not know already that these are critical matters of more than specialized interest, one quickly discovers that truth in reading this compact book. Open Source, public licensing, funding for basic research, and the differences between scientific and technological advancement are all touched. It is surprisingly difficult on ones own to piece together an understanding of the background for approaching these difficult issues. This work does all that for the reader and more.

It really does matter. That is the main import of Who Owns You . In that sense, this might be an almost revolutionary manifesto, exposing some dangers to status quo, in the same powerful way as does, for one example, Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine . They may not know just what they do (or they may), but we must.

Ironically, the "territory" staked out by this book is not just at land's end, but conceptually at the end of what might distinguish basic science from technological contrivances based on that science. Arguably, a gene sequence is so difficult to apprehend - so dependent on complex processes and understandings - that to patent the particular sequence identified is tantamount to and the same thing as patenting the process which has led to its identification. Such that finding the sequence through a different set of steps would amount to finding a different gene sequence, whose "usage" could only be provably identical if the sequences were useful in precisely the same way. This would amount to proprietorship of unmapped territories whose butting up against one another had yet to be established; whose overlapping grants had yet to be trampled.

Dr. Koepsell assumes - he must assume - that the gene is a unitary object, and that granting of overlapping patents is both inevitable and absurd. That by granting patents to gene sequences, one is granting patents to something that would always be discovered as the same entity, regardless of path or process taken. That patenting genes is more akin to patenting blue eyes than to a process to make eyes blue. And absurd for that.

A careful reader must agree. This reader takes hope that the straw dog implicit in the argument - that technological advances will ultimately give humans the ability to choose their destiny; design their genes, for example - that this straw dog will go up in flames. The implicit argument is that it is for this very reason that we must be concerned about "who owns you" as if there were a perpetual battle between freedom and tyranny. There might be. I hold out for surprises which will bury both beneath the still overwhelming power of "nature" to keep our humanness in check. We will not engineer our way out of evolution, though the attempt may yet destroy any chance for life as life at the level of the human.

That, finally, is why this book is so important. It argues for life. Not mawkishly, as religionists do. But scientifically, as an argument to keep surprise itself from being enclosed and owned.
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Reading Progress

04/24/2009 page 20
10.0% "Intro is amazingly promising."
05/02/2009 page 120
60.0% "An incredibly lucid and surprisingly important book" 1 comment

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