Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 4/5/2004Some headlines come close to perfection: "Apple patented by Microsoft" is one. The story deserves it too -- a West Coast horticulturist found a new breed of apple tree, and promptly patented it.

Tuesday 4/5/2004
Some headlines come close to perfection: "Apple patented by Microsoft" is one. The story deserves it too -- a West Coast horticulturist found a new breed of apple tree, and promptly patented it. However, he used the same agents as Microsoft and they mistakenly attributed his patent to the boys from Redmond. You can see how that might happen, given Microsoft's recent fondness for IP: this may have been the one in a hundred that didn't come from the software giant.

Result, one apple tree, genome him belong Bill.

Of course, it's all being sorted out now and nobody's going to sue anybody over anything. But it's a timely reminder that patents have less and less to do with inventions: prior art in an organism can go back to the Garden of Eden and you can still get ownership of the DNA as intellectual property if you're the first to 'discover' it. And what if it's not really a mistake? What if Microsoft is getting into genetic engineering? What would the world look like if human DNA was treated like so much operating system software, with open source hackers pitted against the closed monopolists? I know, half the world's supply of cyberpunk science fiction books revolved around this idea, but you can't help but wonder just how symbolic that patented apple tree was.

To date, my experiments with genetic engineering have been unlicensed, largely unskilled and only intermittently successful -- which has to be for the good of myself, the planet and history in general. But if you had ninety days after fertilisation to register the foetus, an annual licence fee to pay, compulsory upgrades every three years, product recalls and even more susceptibility to passing viruses than yer average snotty schoolkid, it could all prove a more effective contraceptive than anything the London Rubber Company has yet devised.