A couple of months ago, Drew Endy admonished me via email for using "Biobricks" as a noun. The trademark, as held by the Biobricks Foundation (BBF), describes a brand, or marque. The word "Biobricks" is an adjective describing a particular set of things conforming to a particular standard.
I finally had a chance to catch up via phone Drew yesterday, and he clarified why this is important. All the groups contributing to the MIT Registry of Standard Biological Parts, mainly via the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM), are working hard to make sure all those parts conform to set of rules for physical and functional assembly. That means, amongst many other requirements, that the ends of the genes have appropriate sequences for manipulation and are sequence optimized for the assembly protocols. For example, all the EcoR1 restriction enzyme sites need to be at the ends of the part and not in the middle.
It turns out that Drew is seeing lots of "parts" show up in papers and talks, described as "biobricks", that won't be compatible with the growing list of parts in the Registry refrigerators. Thus the need for a differentiable marque. From the BBF FAQ: "The BBF maintains the "biobrick(s)" trademarks in order to enable and defend the set of BioBrick™ standard biological parts as an open and free-to-use collection of standard biological parts." Thus it seems the BBF will both assert a standard and curate and license a library of parts.
There will be a BBF open workshop 4-6 November at MIT to define technical and legal standards for
Biobricks Biobrick parts (it's just awkward, no?), following iGEM 2007 on 2-4 November at MIT.
Which gets me to wondering what other examples there might be of standards being defined and maintained by a foundation, protected with a trademark. As far as I know, "transistor-transistor logic" (TTL) became a standard simply because Texas Instruments put a bunch of products out and everybody else jumped on board (see Wikipedia). But nobody protected the marque "TTL", and no one organization curated and licensed a library of TTL parts. Similarly, if I have got this right, the IEEE discusses and approves standards for hardware and software that manufacturers and programmers can use, but the IEEE does not itself play a role in building or licensing anything. (Comments? Randy? TK?)
So I wonder if the BBF isn't heading out into some unknown territory. Obviously, the idea of
Biobricks Biobrick parts (Argh!) is itself new and interesting, but I wonder what the effect on innovation will be under an apparently new kind of IP regime if one organization is in a position to "defend" not just a a standard but also parts that conform to the standard. What happens if the leadership (or control) of the BBF changes and suddenly the "open and free-to-use collection" becomes not so open? And am I free to build/identify a new part as a Biobrick part (!) without submitting it to the Registry or the BBF? Can I even advertise something as being compatible with the standard on my own, or do I have to have permission from the BBF to even suggest in public that I have something other people might want to use/buy that works with all the other Biobrick™ parts? And who exactly controls the Registry? (The "About the Registry" page doesn't appear to answer this question, even though I believe I have heard Drew and Randy Rettburg say in the past that MIT presently controls the IP. There was also, I believe, some question as to whether some parts in the Registry are actually owned by other organizations.)
So many questions. It is clear that there is lot's of work to do...