Jean-Paul Gaudillière (Paris), Daniel Kevles (Yale) and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (MPIWG, Berlin) are inviting abstracts for a workshop on “Living properties: Making knowledge and controlling ownership in the history of biology” to be held at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, 29-31 May 2008. Here’s their call for papers:

The history of intellectual property has drawn increasing attention in the history of science. A vast corpus of literature including histories of the political, economic, and legal frameworks of innovation, histories of particular technologies, histories of specific enterprises and their R&D investments have been accumulating in recent decades. This literature has addressed the development of the world’s patent systems and explored the existence of arrangements for intellectual property protection outside the patent system such as trade secrets. It has also provided valuable information on the norms and understanding of patenting activities associated with the production and commercialization of products ranging from mechanical devices to therapeutic methods. It has also demonstrated that forms of intellectual property are the product of fragile compromises that have radically changed through time. Ideas of intellectual property and how to protect it have been revealed as features of broad systems of political economy, closely connected to the production and appropriation of the product itself and expressing a variety of means of control, certification and valorization. These systems have promoted the establishment of boundaries between private and common goods that are both real and historically contested.

Especially important linkages among the worlds of science, industry, and law are provided by the history of intellectual property protection in living organisms and their parts. The patent system of the 19th century, a product of the first industrial revolution, was based on the idea that inventions were useful creations of processes or of entities that were mechanical or chemical in nature. It left many living organisms formally unqualified for intellectual property protection: What was the utility of a new variety of a fruit or flower? How could an innovator define a new breed of sheep in mechanical or chemical terms? Patents, as a means of protecting intellectual property in specifically identifiable and regularly reproducible inventions, also conflicted with ideas concerning the naturalness of plants and animals, their variability, the limits of reproducing them identically, , and/or the dangers of commercial monopolies on goods such as food or medicines essential to the preservation of human life. During the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, living organisms were thus held to be un-patentable.

Nevertheless, while plant and animal breeders did not use the term “intellectual property,” they were alive to the concept and they devised a variety of arrangements – pricing systems, contracts, registries, breed associations, trade secrets – to protect the intellectual property in their originations. Patentability first came to living organisms – but only asexually reproducible ones — in the United States with the Plant Patent Act, of 1930. Beginning in the 1960s, a complementary system of plant breeders’ rights grew up in Europe and elsewhere. Beginning in 1980, the increasing understanding of life as specific, manipulated forms of chemistry led to the expansion of the biotechnological industries and to the establishment around the world of intellectual property protection through patents to virtually all living organisms and their parts, save for human beings. Patents have become common and normal ways of controlling and commercializing the biological entities that figure in the laboratory, the nursery, the farm, the factory, and the clinic. All these developments and their impacts have begun to receive historical attention, but a great deal remains to be learned about appropriation, collective ownership and intellectual property protection in living organisms and related technologies in food and pharmaceutical during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A long term aim of this workshop is therefore to encourage the formation and development of a network of scholars actively engaged with the history of innovation and ownership in living organisms and related medical and food technologies. Its immediate aim is to enlarge our knowledge of the processes by which innovations in and bearing on living entities have or have not achieved the status of invention and protected intellectual property, both through the patent systems of the world and outside them. It is essential to historicize our understanding of the changes associated with the present world of DNA-based biotechnology and genomics and to do so in the different nations and multinational organizations in which these changes have occurred. A second aim of the workshop is to look at the relationship between these changing forms of appropriation and the dynamics of biological research since the beginning of the 19th century. Although the question has been barely analyzed, it is a reasonable hypothesis that such appropriation has played an important role in the history of the life sciences. Knowledge and appropriation have often been co-constructed. If our ways of conceptualizing, representing, and manipulating life have determined the ways in which intellectual property in living goods has been defended, the opposite is in all probability also true. The maintenance of large collections of plant varieties by horticultural firms and governments relate not only to trademarks or certificates of innovation, but also to natural history as a way of knowing and to breeding as way of producing. In a similar vein, emerging interests in the study of metabolic pathways during the 1920s and 1930s were nurtured by the research activities of pharmaceutical firms using the patentability of chemical processes to control the commercialization of vitamins or hormones.

In order to shed new light on these issues, the workshop will focus on how knowledge of and innovations in living organisms and related technologies have been realized and how the products achieved identification and protection as intellectual property in the market place. Four forms of knowledge and innovation will be given due consideration: a) natural history and classification with its attendant collections, mutual gifts, certificates and trademarks; b) the breeding of plants and animals; c) experimental biology (i.e. genetic, bacteriology and biochemistry) with its growing ability to manipulate and patent “pure” organisms, molecules or metabolic pathways; and d) modern biotechnology with its emphasis on sequences, broadened intellectual property rights, and upstream control of life “itself”.

Case studies – eventually comparative across time and place – are especially welcomed. They may investigate various objects, including but not limited to: the trajectory of a certain type of commodity revealing the interplay between different forms of appropriation, i.e. trade secrets, trade associations, technical monopolies, trademarks, certificates, and patents; public controversies that resulted in significant changes of intellectual property laws; the legal processes, i.e. patent office deliberations or court cases, that have had a pivotal role in the development of jurisprudence about intellectual property; the activities of academic institutions or private firms involved in R&D and in the capture and management of the property rights in the results; the systems of exchange, distribution and collective access such as UPOV certification that have historically been juxtaposed with or opposed to patents.

Proposals in the form of an abstract are due November 1st 2007. Decisions will be made during the following weeks. Proposals should be sent in electronic form to both Daniel J. Kevles at Yale () and Jean-Paul Gaudillière at INSERM (). The organizing institutions will cover travel costs and accommodation for the invited participants.

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