Synthetic biology bumps up against James Joyce and copyright

Who knew? Well, apparently the James Joyce estate found out that J. Craig Venter coded a quote from Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ into some synthetic DNA in May 2010 and the JJ estate didn’t like it.

Venter and his team made headlines internationally in May 2010 because they replaced the DNA in a bacterium with DNA they had created, i.e., synthetic DNA. Here’s how the problem with the James Joyce estate arose (from the March 14, 2011 David Ewalt article on Forbes),

In order to distinguish their synthetic DNA from that naturally present in the bacterium, Venter’s team coded several famous quotes into their DNA, including one from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

After announcing their work, Venter explained, his team received a cease and desist letter from Joyce’s estate, saying that he’d used the Irish writer’s work without permission. ”We thought it fell under fair use,” said Venter.

Carl Zimmer over on The Loom (a Discover magazine blog) offers some additional commentary in his March 15, 2011 posting,

Last year I wrote about how Craig Venter and his colleagues had inscribed a passage from James Joyce into the genome of a synthetic microbe. The line, “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” was certainly apropos, but it was also ironic, since it is now being defaced as Venter’s microbes multiply and mutate.

Man, do I wish this would go to court! Imagine the legal arguments. I wonder what would happen if the court found in the Joyce estate’s favor. Would Venter have to pay for every time his microbes multiplied? Millions of little acts of copyright infringement?

I was under the impression that the JJ estate folks are very protective and litigious and sure enough I found an item confirming that impression this morning. Mike Mangan in his March 16, 2011 post on Techdirt offers some perspective on this state of affiairs and on Venter’s own IP (intellectual property) adventures,

Craig Venter, who is no stranger to advocating stronger and stronger IP laws — especially in the area of “synthetic life” — apparently learned recently how those laws can reach ridiculous levels. In a recent presentation, he noted that his team had encoded a James Joyce quote in the DNA of the “synthetic life” he’s been trying to create. However, the James Joyce estate was not amused and sent him a cease-and-desist. Venter notes that he felt that it was fair use to include a quote.

This isn’t the first time that the Joyce estate has done stuff like this, including an attempt to stifle a biography by use of a copyright claim. In that case, the estate finally learned that they had no claim when they actually had to pay up to settle the case.

I think Mangan is in the right when he calls it ridiculous. By the way, Venter inscribed another quote in the synthetic DNA, this one from Richard Feynman. Here’s what Venter wrote,

“What I cannot built, I cannot understand.”

Venter got it wrong. As per Ewalt’s article, Feynman’s quote should have been (apparently the folks from the California Institute of Technology, where Feynman worked, sent Venter an image of the blackboard where Feynman composed the quote),

“What I cannot create, I cannot understand.”

What fascinates me in all this is that quote no longer exist. From Zimmer’s May 21, 2010 posting about Venter, James Joyce and synthetic life,

The fate of Joyce’s DNA points up something important about this project. There have been lots of headlines over the past day about how the scientists who made this cell were playing God. Yet our power, even over synthetic cells, is limited. Once this new cell came into existence, it started changing through evolution, slipping away from its original form. In fact, evolution is the great enemy of all scientists who want to use synthetic biology to supply us with medicine, fuel, and other valuable things. Once they engineer a microbe, they start to lose control of their handiwork. Life takes its own course from there. It is life, ultimately, that recreates life from life.

I previously posted about Venter’s synthetic biology project on May 21, 2010 and posted about Venter’s upcoming visit to Vancouver on March 7, 2011.

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