Sunday, December 16, 2007

Next ...

by Tika

This post is a review about Michael Crichton's Book "Next", including some of my thoughts on the whole deal with patents and intelectual property rights in Indonesia.

The Actual Book Review:

I think this book is just good fun and more. It's totally hollywood-ish but combined with some "serious issues" that actually made me think, yes really!

It deals with intellectual property rights in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. One plot line was about how a guy's cells were patented by this small biotech company that is actually on the verge of going bankrupt. Problem was, as more people realized how "valuable" this guy's cells are--in monetary terms--a lot of dirty fighting started to go on. The cells were finally stolen somehow by an unknown--yet obviously powerful entity (this involved a graduate biology student like me being horribly murdered in an elevator while going to one of those biotech conventions...). As a result, the company needed to isolate more of these cells from the source, while aiming to further prevent other people from getting their hands on the cells. So they started to harass the guy running around with these valuable cells in his body -- telling the guy to give them up as legally, the cells in his body are not his anymore!

As the guy's life was increasingly being threatened, he decided to run away and went off radar. The biotech company started to look for other ways to get their hands on these "valuable" cells. They started to hone in on the guy's family, who theoretically would genetically have the same cells as his. So the company got themselves some sleazy lawyer to make a case that the cells of these family members were theirs too, using the patent they have on the original guy's cells and expanding it to rigidly include any decendent of the guy's cells. First they started to harass the guy's grown-up daughter, but as she was too tough, they started to chase the small grandson of this guy in a very James Bondish/James Bourne-ish way, trying to kidnap him from school and sedate him to get his cells. Real tense moments for me there! This plot line is so out there, which is why I think it was just so fun to read but still managed to get the point across, albeit in a very exaggerated hollywodish fashion.

Intertwined with this were other plots about a talking orang utan from Indonesia, a parrot who could think for himself, a crazy environmentalist, a child molester, a filthy tycoon CEO of giant biotech company who is running for some political office, and last but not least, a greedy scientist who likes to take advantage of newly graduated biology PhD students in his lab to work for him, but in the end would try to take the work as his! (this last plot is the one I like best and hits most close to my own potential predicament if I end up working in a lab run by such types of sleazeballs). There are other juicy plots, but I've forgotten most of them as I read the book over a year ago. Anyway, somehow all these plots came together in the end to create a bang! I will give no spoiler, but I can tell you it is just great hollywood combined with great greek drama.

So what does Crichton think about the great intellectual property debate in the Biotech Industry of America? Obviously, he thinks the laws out there are just crappy. Patent laws as they stand now are open to being misused, giving the most benefit to greed than to true benefits for the people. Most patents are even doing the opposite of what it is meant to do: instead of promoting creativity and innovation, it is actually stifling it by making sure that somethings are not allowed to be made into real innovations. For example, the guy's cells, as they are already patented by a company, who can think of nothing but getting money without much regard of doing any further innovation out of them, is no longer open to be used for further research by other scientists to make better medicine. What's more, it ends up being "pawned" by people who have no other intention but to make money.

Crichton thinks, this is happening not because a lot of people are just inherently greedy, most are not. They become greedy because the patent system available now force a lot of people to "act greedy" in order to just survive. For example, the biotech company who is trying to kidnap this kid with the cells is just some nameless small biotech firm that is running out of money as it can't really compete due to the corrupt patent laws that are around, biased towards giant biotech firms with strong links to a handful of corrupt individuals in powerful places. So it ends up taking drastic measures just to "stay alive". Biotech patents take about 20 years to expire in the US (at least), so even if innovation is feasible, it might just end up being put in a box because such rigid patent laws are making it hard for scientists to work on things that are already under some patent. But Crichton is hopeful in the end -- metaphorically -- by actually "shooting down" one of it's greatest evil doer -- yeah!

Crichton believes that only by making the patent laws better, such that it is to the benefit of those who can make the best innovation and the best good for the people, will we be able to get some real breakthroughs from the biotechnology industry. This comes through patents that foster original creativity and innovation for the good of most people, not just letting patents be given for things that are already out there without requiring much thinking (ie. genes, cells). Only by emphasizing creativity and innovation as criteria for patents, such as letting patents only for the process and methodology of this innovation instead of the materials being used for the methods (ie. the cells), will patents be able to function properly for the progress of the industry.

My Own Thoughts On It In Relation to Being Indonesian:

This book review comes in a time when patenting and intellectual property rights issues seem to be surfacing up in the Indonesian scene (as I am writing this, it is Mid-December 2007). This is interesting to me as I know patents in Indonesia don't even really work since stealing amongst Indonesians is just an "accepted" thing. But Indonesians like to make a big deal out of other people -- meaning people of other nations -- violating "Indonesian's rights", with Indonesia acting as "victim" to the whole deal. We don't care so much if some Indonesian is acting as culprit to victimize other Indonesians (ie. we only have some care about those people "disappearing" during reformation movement or during the orde baru regime, about people found suddenly dead in airplanes, about indonesian-malaysian descendants of migrants whose parents are now considered country-less, about people dying of bird flu etc.). Indonesia surely will have it worse if we don't think through this with a clean head, as we are far behind from the whole world on everything.

What we are going about with things such as the cultural wars, the bird flu strains is not doing Indonesia any good. Indonesia fails to think deep into the impact of such claims. Most are blinded by misplaced patriotic ideals. For instance, the Health Prime Minister was heard to say that she is not allowing anyone (other than Indonesians) a hand on the so called "Indonesian" flu strain. She is trying to patent this "freely living" flu virus to be rightfully owned by Indonesian people, since they come from Indonesian people who die from it, in Indonesia. She hopes that by moving in this direction, she will help the people of Indonesia from being "cheated" by the whole process. A lot of scientists in Indonesia agree on this patriotic premise. We like to pat each others back when one of us go and spearhead a campaign to support such rigid patent laws at the international level -- suggesting some to metaphorically carry a "sharp bamboo stick (bambu runcing)" while going about it. What she does not realize is that by spearheading such acts, we are playing into the very greed we are trying to avoid so desperately. The small biotech company in the end of Crichton's novel went bankrupt. Indonesia has much less power than this metaphor given in Crichton's novel, we can only imagine what worse fate we might find ourselves into.

Indonesia hate foreigners, so much so that we do anything necessary to support such ideals, even if it might end up to our own detriment. This patriotism comes in priority over the rate of deaths resulting from the bird flu in Indonesia: we are the highest nation in the world now with people dying from the disease. We think by placing our patriotism on this virus, it will make most Indonesian people happy, and actually stop the deaths? In a simple world, maybe so, but we do not live in such simplicity.

According to Crichton, what bad that is going on now in the biotech industry is not because there are a lot of greedy people out there that are out trying to get you. It is a system of misplaced laws that are not optimally thought through, resulting in most people in the end having to act in a greedy way. Supporting patent laws to people that have no real input to true innovation will just lead to more people taking in false claims, creating extreme barriers to those people who can really make true innovations, in the end delaying, if not totally preventing, the progress of innovation that are supposed to be supported by such patent laws. All this happening while people might actually still be dying from such lack of progress. I don't believe that there should be patents for things such as viruses and genes, just because they surface in some national geographic boundary.

Each Indonesian, as "individuals", will have to do more to get their name on the virus they isolated from a dead Indonesian person. But surely, just "letting go" of the virus will not help as we know how faulty current international patent laws are now, but holding some virus as hostage will not help to make the laws more friendlier to Indonesians and the progress of science in Indonesia. What Indonesians need to do is to help spearhead the idea of true innovation at the international scene, of open source access for people with the highest motivation and skills for creativity and progress to the benefit of most people. We must go pass our xenophobic ideals and spearhead true patriotism that fosters creativity and innovation in Indonesia. This means challenging Indonesian scientists to act in a competitive way both at the local and international level and support laws at the international level that foster true innovations.

At a general level, it will do no good for any Indonesians to think that people are out there to get us. The Indonesian Health Minister was heard to say that the flu virus is actually American made and purposely distributed "to kill people" in poor countries just for the sake of their own greed (this is an interesting claim as if this is true, this will totally negate Indonesia's claim to it's patent, being it really -- American made!). Though most Indonesian biotech scientists don't agree with this conspiracy theory claim, they accept it as some "harmless" fault of the Minister's that can be "overlooked".

In addition, perpetuating the idea that things which require little innovation is patentable is totally detrimental to our progress. Saying that a folk song -- that no Indonesian living today have any real input to it's creation -- other than the still questionable origin of the long dead composer as being ancestral to us -- can be patentable, does no good to Indonesia's perception of true creativity and innovation. We must look further for progress, further than just what our lands have "naturally" offered us, further than just what our great ancestors have left for us to learn from. Indonesians feel very good and proud about the riches our land have planted for us to survive on -- the heritage our ancestors have left for us, without much thinking into what true innovation we can make out of them to actually create something as truly our own. All this due to some misplaced patriotism on our part -- long overdue to be thought over and changed for the better.

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