Who owns me?

One of the most disturbing ideas I've encountered in intellectual property law is the peculiar idea of owning and being able to patent naturally occuring gene sequences, such as those in the Human Genome project. Even though we have been fortunate that most of that information is not under restrictive licensing conditions, that the laws allow such a thing is something I find bad enough. How can it be that this holy of holies, the fundamentally defining data that makes every cell in my body uniquely me, should be treated as property to be owned. And if it is owned, why is it not owned by me?

When talking about the idea of “free software” there are a number of ambiguities. The most popular topic is the distinction between zero-cost and providing freedom. But another ambiguity is who is given the freedom, the user, the developer, or the software itself? We aren't accustomed to assigning agent status to software, but what about when the “software” is a gene sequence, and the “compiler” is your mother's womb?

In our society, we argue for the idea of ownership of information, we permit the ownership of living beings, but we deny the ownership of people. Yet, the information that makes a person—his or her “source”—is something that can be bought and sold. Have we drawn the line in the right place?

What if someone comes into possession of your genome and uses that knowledge to create a clone of you? This is still on the edge of what is technically possible, but the pieces are all there: sequences can be used to generate DNA (achieving this on the chromosome scale is still not possible yet—but of course, the information could be in the form of an already extant genome: just one cell of your body is all that is needed); DNA can be used to create a viable zygote, and that zygote can be incubated to an embryo in vitro; the embryo can be implanted in a surrogate mother and brought to term. Maybe someday this will be refined: the sequence might be generated from digitally-coded sequence data, or the surrogate mother replaced by a completely artificial womb. But the key technology for reproducing a human being—even against their will—are available today.

What's more, it might well be legal. Certainly, it is permitted by the intellectual property laws. A medical establishment that removes any part of you has a right to exploit the genes they find there (and of course, a sample of the genes). And who will be the legal guardian of that newly created being? You? The experimenter? A corporation?

It might be argued that no one has abused this right so far, but what kind of defense is that?

It seems to me that it is a natural extension of the freedom of individuals that their genomes must also be free (or most naturally, perhaps, owned by them). Surely you ought to have a right to the data that makes up you, be it in your genes or in your memories.


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With thanks to Perth Counselling to keep FSM editors sane.