pp 1–22 | Cite as

Patents and the challenge of ‘open source’ in an emergent biological commons or … the strange case of Betty Crocker and the mouse

  • Bronwyn ParryEmail author
Original Article


Patent has long been presumed to be an essential mechanism for realising the value of intellectual labour invested in the manufacture of biological inventions. By examining how the creators of engineered mice strains deposited at the Jackson Laboratory have utilised patent, I here explore the paradoxical matter of why they have not asserted their rights in the way anticipated by patent advocates. The emergence of new open source economies in mammalian genetic resources (the Mouse Academic Commons) has served to valorise collaborative working and iterative forms of experimentation. Engineered mouse strains are, in this context, best conceived of as an experimental space or biological commons open to re-invention by all. The key issue of how individual donors can protect the integrity of their donated ‘works’ and capitalize on the intellectual labour invested in their creation remains, however, largely unexplored. Here I argue that value lies not in the model mouse or strain itself, but rather in the experimental techniques that assure its continued genetic integrity; and demonstrate how process patents and trademark are together deployed to assure the reliability of the personality, identity, and reputation of the protected strains; and with it the economic viability of a biotechnological commons.


Biological commons Model organisms Intellectual property Open source Craft Bioinformation Trademark 



I would like to thank Gail Davies for first alerting me to the IPR issues associated with model mice and to her and Sarah Franklin for our later conversations on the topic. I would also like to thank David Einhorn for enlightening me on the legal battles that ensued over Jax’s efforts to keep their accessioned mice open source. Any errors of fact or interpretation remain my own. Additionally, I would like to sincerely thank my reviewers for their detailed and highly insightful comments on an earlier draft. Lastly I’d like to thank Sally for her patience in living with these mice in her house for so long!


  1. Ankeny, R., and S. Leonelli. 2011. What’s so special about model organisms? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 42 (2): 313–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Abbott, A. 2009. Mouse patent sparks’ uncivil’ spat. Nature 459 (7247): 620.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Austin, C.P., J.F. Battey, A. Bradley, M. Bucan, M. Capecchi, F.S. Collins, W.F. Dove, G. Duyk, S. Dymecki, J.T. Eppig, and F.B. Grieder. 2004. The knockout mouse project. Nature Genetics 36 (9): 921–924.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bailey, D. 1982. How pure are inbred strains of mice? Immunology Today 3 (8): 210–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blaug, S., C. Colleen, and M. Shuster. 2004. Managing innovation: University–industry partnerships and the licensing of the Harvard mouse. Nature Biotechnology 22 (6): 761–763.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Calvert, J. 2007. Patenting genomic objects: Genes, genomes, function and information. Science as Culture 16 (2): 207–223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Calvert, J. 2012. Ownership and sharing in synthetic biology: A ‘diverse ecology’of the open and the proprietary? BioSocieties 7 (2): 169–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Carolan, M. 2010. The mutability of biotechnology patents: From unwieldy products of nature to independent ‘Object/s’ Theory. Culture and Society 27 (1): 110–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Castells, M. 1996. The information age: Economy, society, and culture. The rise of the network society, vol. I. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  10. Cukier, K. 2005. Triumph of the commons: Will open source transform biotech? The Economist, February 10, p. 32.Google Scholar
  11. Davies, G. 2012. What is a humanized mouse? Remaking the species and spaces of translational medicine. Body & Society. 18 (3–4): 126–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Davies, G. 2013. Mobilizing experimental life: Spaces of becoming with mutant mice. Theory, Culture & Society 30 (7–8): 129–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Deibel, E. 2014. Open Genetic Code: On open source in the life sciences. Life Sciences, Society and Policy 10 (1): 2–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Einhorn, D. 2008. Research Report to the National Institutes of Health Grant Number 5RO3 HG003766-01. Unpublished: Courtesy of the author.Google Scholar
  15. Einhorn, D., and R. Heimes. 2009. Creating a mouse academic research commons. Nature Biotechnology 27 (10): 890–891.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Endy, D. 2005. Foundations for engineering biology. Nature 438 (7067): 449–453.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hall, B., A. Limaye, and A.B. Kulkarni. 2009. Overview: Generation of gene knockout mice. Current Protocols in Cell Biology 19: 12.Google Scholar
  18. Heller, M.A., and R.S. Eisenberg. 1998. Can patents deter innovation? The anticommons in biomedical research. Science 280 (5364): 698–701.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kevles, D.J. 2002. Of mice & money: The story of the world’s first animal patent. Daedalus 131 (2): 78–88.Google Scholar
  20. Kirk, R. 2008. ‘Wanted—Standard guinea pigs’: Standardisation and the experimental animal market in Britain ca. 1919–1947. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. 39 (3): 280–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kloppenburg, J. 2010. Seed sovereignty: The promise of open source biology. In Food sovereignty: Reconnecting food, nature and community, ed. H. Wittman, A. Desmarais, and N. Wiebe, 152–167. Fernwood: Halifax.Google Scholar
  22. Krimsky, S. 1999. The profit of scientific discovery and its normative implications Chicago-Kent. Law Review 75 (15): 15–39.Google Scholar
  23. Leonelli, S., R.A. Ankeny, N.C. Nelson, and E. Ramsden. 2014. Making organisms model human behavior: Situated models in North-American alcohol research, 1950-onwards. Science in Context 27 (3): 485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Leonelli, S., D. Spichtinger, and B. Prainsack. 2015. Sticks and carrots: Encouraging open science at its source. Geo: Geography and Environment 2 (1): 12–16.Google Scholar
  25. Lezaun, J., and C.M. Montgomery. 2015. The pharmaceutical commons: Sharing and exclusion in global health drug development. Science, Technology and Human Values 40 (1): 3–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Löwy, I., and J.P. Gaudillière. 1998. Disciplining cancer: Mice and the practice of genetic purity. The Invisible Industrialist, 209–249. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Marks, S. 2007. Finding Betty Crocker: The secret life of America’s first lady of food. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  28. Marvel, H.P., and L. Ye. 2008. Trademark sales, entry, and the value of reputation. International economic review 49 (2): 547–576.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Murray, F. 2010. The oncomouse that roared: Hybrid exchange strategies as a source of distinction at the boundary of overlapping institutions. American Journal of Sociology 116 (2): 341–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Nelson, N.C. 2018. Model behavior: Animal experiments, complexity, and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. OECD. 2001. Biological resource centres: Underpinning the future of life sciences and biotechnology. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  32. Paigen, K. 1995. A miracle enough: The power of mice. Nature Medicine 1 (3): 215–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Parry, B. 2004. Trading the genome: Investigating the commodification of bio-information. New York: Columbia University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Rader, K. 1998. “The mouse people”: Murine genetics work at the Bussey Institution, 1909–1936. Journal of the History of Biology 31 (3): 327–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rader, K. 2004. Making mice: Standardizing animals for American biomedical research, 1900–1955. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Robins, R. 2008. Inventing oncomice: Making natural animal, research tool and invention cohere. Genomics, Society, and Policy 4 (2): 21–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Schechter, F. 1925. The historical foundations of the law relating to trade-marks. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Sennett, R. 2008. The Craftsman. Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Specht, C., and R. Schoepfer. 2001. Deletion of the alpha-synuclein locus in a subpopulation of C57BL/6J inbred mice. BMC Neuroscience. 2 (1): 11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Singh, K.K. 2014. Biotechnology and intellectual property rights: Legal and social implications. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  41. Stevens, J., G. Banks, M. Festing, and E. Fisher. 2007. Quiet mutations in inbred strains of mice. Trends in Molecular Medicine 13 (12): 512–519.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Threadgill, D., D. Yee, A. Matin, J. Nadeau, and T. Magnuson. 1997. Genealogy of the 129 inbred strains: 129/SvJ is a contaminated inbred strain. Mammalian Genome 8 (6): 390–393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. World Intellectual Property Organisation. 2013. Brand: Reputation and image in the global marketplace. Geneva: WIPO.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Global Health and Social MedicineKing’s College LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations