DNA codes may be protected as 'music'

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The Independent Online

A biotechnology company is following in the footsteps of Lennon and McCartney by using the law on music copyright to protect a piece of work – only this time it is not a pop song they are trying to reserve but a sequence of DNA.

The plan is to convert a DNA sequence – the order of the four chemicals that form the genetic code of a plant or animal – into a piece of digitally encoded music that can then be copyrighted like any other tune.

The proposal is being studied by Neil Boorstyn, one of America's leading copyright lawyers, who once worked for the Beatles.

If the proposal works it would mean that companies could in effect protect a particular DNA sequence against exploitation by competitors without the need for DNA patenting, which is more difficult to achieve if there is no immediate invention involved.

It would also mean that the protection would last far longer because copyright laws can cover a period of up to 100 years rather than the 17 years covered by the patent laws of most countries.

The proposal is suggested by Pim Stemmer, the vice-president of research and development at Maxygen, a biotechnology company based in Redwood City, California, who said it would provide a relatively simple solution to a complex problem.

"Original works of authorship, such as music, literature and sculpture, are covered by copyright ... However, natural DNA sequences are generally considered not to be covered by copyright as they are not works of authorship. They were not created by scientists, but simply uncovered," Dr Stemmer said.

If, however, a company converted a natural DNA sequence into a piece of digital music, such as an MP3 file, then this could be copyrighted as a work of art in the same way that a song of Madonna could be legally protected against commercial exploitation.

"As the internet provider Napster recently discovered, music files are clearly protected by copyright, and unauthorised copying of a digital music file from a music database clearly constitutes copyright infringement," Dr Stemmer said.

Any company that turns DNA into a "tune" could then sell the music to another company, which would also buy a coded software program that could translate the music back into the original DNA sequence.

"This back-translated DNA sequence itself would not be covered by copyright. However, intellectual property protection may exist because the external user can access a DNA sequence only by copying of a copyright-protected music file," Dr Stemmer said.

The idea of using copyright laws to protect DNA sequences could catch on. Several companies are withholding the publication of DNA sequences because of fears that the information would be used by other commercial organisations. Dr Stemmer said his plan to convert DNA sequences into music could open up an area that was becoming too secretive.