Sun Tries Open Hardware Development, and India Pushes Open Biology

India is compiling an open, on-line encyclopedia of traditional medical knowledge.  In "India hits back in 'bio-piracy' battle", Soutik Biswas reports for the BBC that, in the last decade, India has found itself working to overturn Western patents on uses of compounds that have been known for centuries by domestic healers.  This prior art is the accumulation of generations of effort, and it is understandable that a population that makes use of traditional medicines might be a tad peeved that their work is being stolen. 

Biswas describes an effort to make the knowledge easily accessible:

The ambitious $2m project, christened Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, will roll out an encyclopaedia of the country's traditional medicine in five languages - English, French, German, Japanese and Spanish - in an effort to stop people from claiming them as their own and patenting them.

A major motivation for putting all this information in writing is that the oral component of traditional Indian teaching and knowledge is not acknowledged withing Western Intellectual Property law:

Under normal circumstances, a patent application should always be rejected if there is prior existing knowledge about the product. ...But in most of the developed nations like United States, "prior existing knowledge" is only recognised if it is published in a journal or is available on a database - not if it has been passed down through generations of oral and folk traditions.

There is obviously a great deal of value in this accumulated wisdom:

Dr Vinod Kumar Gupta, who is leading the traditional wealth encyclopaedia project and heads India's National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (Niscair), reckons that of the nearly 5,000 patents given out by the US Patent Office on various medical plants by the year 2000, some 80% were plants of Indian origin.

By one estimate, a quarter of the new drugs produced in the US are plant-based, giving the sometimes much-criticised practitioners of alternative traditional medicine something to cheer about.

Which suggests an additional effect of the library: those inclined to self-medicate will have a tremendous resource for treating what ails them.  We are likely to see an increasing number of people showing up at western clinics and hospitals with a history that includes treatments and compounds not amongst the recognized armamentarium.  Another complication of Open Biology, or Open Source Biology, or whatever we are going to call it.  People are going to use information however they see fit, trying things out, producing improvements occasionally.  It's another matter, of course, as to whether those improvements will be shared.  One can only hope that the tradition of open innovation extends to such novel medical treatments.

Sun Microsystems appears to be explicitly counting on this behavior to provide improvements in their UltraSPARC T1 processor.  By open-sourcing the VERILOG design code (eWeek news story) for the chip (OpenSPARC), Sun is hoping the masses can produce more innovation than Sun itself.  The press release makes interesting, if flowery, reading.  "If it works in software, why wouldn't it work for processors?" asks Chairman Scott McNealy, as quoted in the eWeek article.

The most interesting part of the whole story is the strategy to promote innovation around the chip, and then potentially bring those innovations in house.  Jeffrey Burt, in the eWeek article writes:

Sun already has shown the ability to bring in key technologies through acquisitions—indeed, the groundwork for the T1 chip was developed by another company, Afara Websystems Inc., which Sun bought in 2002. McNealy said he envisioned a future where companies will be created to develop technologies around UltraSPARC T1, and then be acquired by Sun. (emphasis added)

If this strategy works for hardware, why not wetware?  If it works for electrons, why not molecules?  I speculated about this in an earlier post, Acquiring Open-Source Projects.  It appears that with the OpenSPARC project we will have another example of how to encourage innovation, and we will find out whether a commercial entity can profit from so explicitly sharing the fruits of its labor.