December 7, 2010
Charlie Schick is an ex-scientist and a determined practical microbiologist. He writes about science, media, and other lofty subjects at http://molecularist.com.
Recently, I’ve been prowling the aisles of liquor stores and supermarkets reading labels of fermented foods, looking for new cultures to use. Am I violating any copyright?
Back in June, the DIYbio folks in the Boston area had a fun meet-up on yoghurt making, led by Vaughn Tan. One thing that was brought up but we really did not discuss was the copyright of culture strains found in yogurts. Mac asked if there were legal ramifications to using strains taken from commercial yogurt.
I remember a time when it was hard to find commercial products with live cultures, for example beer or yogurt. Beers were pasteurized (ugh) or, later, filtered to remove live cultures. And in the 90s, I remember Stonyfield’s as being the only “widely” available live yogurt.
But now it seems almost all yogurts have live cultures (though not necessarily with a rich set of bugs – some seem to have 1 or 2 instead of the usual 5). And I was impressed with my local liquor store carrying a wide range of beers with live yeast, such as lambics (fermented with a complex collection of wild yeasts and bacteria) and a breton beer, that caught my eye because it was made with two yeasts.
When I need to, I start my yogurt cultures with a starter taken from a commercial yogurt, such as Stonyfield’s. And I’m considering pitching (inoculating) my next beer batch with the two yeasts of that breton beer.
Is this “fair use”? If I give the culture to someone else, is that piracy? And what if I start selling my product?
And how can anyone prove it is their strain? These bugs are easily available, and most are naturally occurring. Will commercial strains need to be fingerprinted somehow for copyright protection?
You can see where this is going: Who will be the RIAA-equivalent in this story, to crack down on infringement? Who will be the EFF- or Creative Commons-equivalent to promote openness? Will we have a Napster-like bug-sharing service, freely sharing strains among all sorts of practical microbiologists?
In the lab, there are usually rules in place to restrict the free sharing of strains or samples. But these are usually for recombinant organisms, where it is clear what was created. What about for naturally occurring organisms?
Open sharing of information is a cornerstone of DIYbio. Will the same freedom extend to the sharing of microorganisms, especially if those microorganisms come from a lab or commercial product?
I don’t have the answers. Do you?