Acquiring Open Source Projects

One of the issues that always arises in discussions of Open Source Biology is how anyone will make any money.  Not everyone is interested in money, of course, but molecular biology is still a bit expensive and requires capital of some sort to keep it running.  Without the possibility of a return on their investment, most investors probably won't go near open source biology.

This was an explicit objection raised by a banker/VC type at After the Genome VI, in December of 2000.  I've heard similar complaints all along the way, though the VC in question also added something like "they won't let you do it" to his oration, presumably refering to big biotech companies.  I immediately asked myself what "they" could do about it, and have pondered the question ever since.  The problem doesn't seem to be encouraging tinkerers to have at it, or that big companies might prevent them from doing so, but rather turning the fruits of tinkering into useful tools and products that most people want to use.

Products take a long time to develop to the stage where people want to actually purchase them.  Lot's of open source software in particular doesn't attract a large user base because the interface isn't as polished as that provided by commercial houses, even if the guts of the code are better.  This is as true of software and cars as it is of molecules and other biological technology.  In my experience, most biologists seem to want a box with an instruction book -- a package they can use to produce data -- and are rather less likely to put up with sorting out the intricasies of working with a tube full of molecules from some guy down the street.

On the one hand tools and skills are proliferating at a remarkable rate, democratising the technology and its applications, but on the other most new useful tools still come from "traditionally" funded and run corporations, and we want to ensure continued investment that funds that development of finished products.

One way out of this might be the aquisition of open source projects by established companies, or by start-ups funded specifically to take a project private and push the commercial applications.  It turns out this has now happened in the open source software world.  This obviously can only work if all the contributors to the open source project agree to sell their rights as developers to the company.

David Berlind describes what transpired, and explores its implications, at ZDnet:

To acquire an open source project, the acquirer must be absolutely certain that they are acquiring the copyrights to all of the code being used in the project.  Those copyrights ultimately belong to the individual contributors to the project who, up until the point of acquisition, would have been bequeathing certain rights to their code to others under whatever open source license is behind the project.  To the extent that licensing that code under an OSI-approved license is what let the code out out of the box and into the open source wild, there’s nothing that the acquirer can do to put it back in the box.  That code will always remain available under whatever open source license it was published.  But, by acquiring the copyrights and any trademarks associated with that code, the acquirer also acquires the right to modify and distribute the original code without having to make those modifications available under an open source license.  In other words, future versions of the open source software could become closed source.

The last sentence is perhaps the most interesting, particularly in the context of biology.  I can imagine open source biological technologies developed in a distributed way, or at least developed by more than one person, which are useful to those willing to master the eccentricities but which are not widely used because they may be unwieldly.  In steps a commercial endeavor to tie up all the loose ends, and then put it in a nice package with a bow on top -- complete with instruction manual, please.  As with software projects, all the details disclosed prior to aquisition would remain in the public domain, but any further work the company put into development would remain their property and contribute to the value of the final product.

This is, of course, similar to how technology is moved from universities into the private sector.  So it isn't a great stretch of the imagination to see that it might work with distributed, "amateur" development efforts.  Something to consider.