Team:British Columbia/Human Practices/IP


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British Columbia -

Investigating Intellectual Property in iGEM

Working with novel concepts such as tunable consortia and distribution of the Dsz pathway, the UBC team became curious of whether iGEM projects would be owned as intellectual property (IP). We also realize that almost all research projects require the use of some sort of IP-related component. Even if iGEM teams are not planning to patent their own work, they will likely come across something (e.g., reagent, strain, etc.) that is already patented by someone else. To use these materials properly, we need to understand how to navigate around the legal aspect of patents.

The purpose of this part of our Human Practices project is to convey IP knowledge to the community in an iGEM-relevant fashion. We surveyed various iGEM teams about their interest in such an IP primer and asked them about what they already knew, what the would like to know, and how they would like the information presented to them. In constructing our guide, we have met up with professions in the field of biotechnological patenting and incorporated the results of these meetings here. In this respect, our project will serve as a connection between iGEM and experts outside our community.

We do not intend to make an argument for or against the idea of intellectual property. Our aim is to create a user-friendly platform for all iGEM teams to learn about relevant IP issues. It will present information in a manner that will allow users to make an informed decision about what stance to take when confronted with IP-related decisions. In addition, the guide will help teams navigate through the processes of obtaining or using patents and build a foundation upon which they can then proceed with their projects.

Our Survey

Our survey methodology was relatively simple. We wanted to confirm our suspicions that other iGEM teams knew as little about "patents and stuff" as we did. We then came up with a set of questions for other teams, trying to evaluate their existing knowledge, their self-assessment of their knowledge, and their desire, if any, to increase that knowledge. Some of us wondered if we'd see evidence of a Dunning–Kruger effect.

After implementing our survey using Google Drive, we sent it to team Calgary for testing. They all took it, and verified it worked. Thanks, Calgary! We then sent an email to every team's primary contact, asking them to take our survey and pass it along to their team. We had great turnout, garnering 328 individual responses.

Best Respondents

Big thanks to teams Bielefeld, Bonn, Calgary, UC Davis, and Warsaw for having more than 80% of their team members, advisors, and instructors answer our survey! They represent the best parts of the iGEM community, helping others create knowledge without asking for much in return.


These questions were relatively straightforward. We just wanted to know who was answering our survey! Happily, it looks like we got a reasonably representative sample of respondents.

Experience With IP

Unsurprisingly, the size of the "Yes" pie slice is almost the same size as the sum of "Advisors" and "Instructors" pie slices above, but let's look into that further...

While the bulk of respondents are still members with no patent experience, this breakdown reveals that approximately half of the responding advisors and instructors have patent experience and half don't.

Having a larger number of responses to this question than "Yes" answers to the previous one was perplexing. We expected those who indicated having no experience with patents to skip this question. A more sophisticated survey might have only revealed this question upon receiving a yes answer to the previous one.

This was a check-box poll, where respondents could select more than one box, and could also fill in a text field for custom "Other" responses. Some of the "Other" responses included involvement with software copyrights & patents, research in patent databases, and being in the process of obtaining a patent.

Need a for Guide

The above graph displays responses from three questions. Note that respondent's median self-assessed level of knowledge is 3, while the median desired level of knowledge is 8 and the median level thought to be obtainable from a brief guide is 6. Respondents thought that a brief guide can get them a good amount of the way to their goal, and this reinforced our motivation to produce such a guide.

It is interesting to note how many respondents want to be patent lawyers.

This check-box poll confirmed our suspicions that a FAQ-style guide was the way to go. We likely lead the respondents to that conclusion. We didn't claim to be perfect social scientists. What's a little push-polling between friends?

Reinforcing that we aren't perfect social scientists, this question should have forced the respondent to make a choice. "Both" is an easy no-thought choice that damages what we intended to learn from the question. Regardless, we still learned that respondents are generally enthusiastic to learn about both sides of patents.

Patent Knowledge

Our research for the FAQ turned up a ballpark figure $US30,000 for a biotech patent in the United States. Accordingly, it seems like the median respondent is underestimating the cost of a patent by a decimal place or two.

We turned up a ballpark numberfor this too. Three to six years is a typical length of time for the patent process to go from initial application, through prosecution, to issuance.

We suspect you'll notice a theme when we tell you we found out about this too. The Patent Cooperation Treaty gives an applicant 18 months after their first application in a participating country to apply for patents in other participating countries. These applications in the other participating countries will have an effective filing date of the first application.

Intellectual Property & Current Projects

This check-box poll illustrates that iGEM participants are reasonably resourceful when they start thinking about applying for IP protection. The majority of people have chosen to use the internet to gather information. This was what we had expected. This may explain why learning about IP for iGEM is such a big concern. The world of IP is vast, ever-changing, and often ambiguous. The internet, as a result, contains a sea of information that tends to overwhelm people new to IP. Like us, many might like for someone to pick and choose the relevant information instead of sifting through everything themselves.

As you can see, a large part of the survey-takers don't know if they want to apply for a patent. This is interest because we can start to ask why. Have they just never given IP much thought, or do they not know enough about it to even consider applying? Either way, it shows that iGEMers need to pay more attention to IP issues. As for the other results, like expected, patents looks to be the most prevalent type of IP that iGEMers applying for IP protection is concerned about. Now, if we look at the people who answered that they didn't want to consider getting protection, the majority of the people gave moral reasons and lack of effort as the explanation. We're hoping that our IP guide can help address both of these groups. For the iGEMers who think tackling IP problems are too much work, a centralized collection of information (aka Team UBC's IP guide) may help them out. As for the ones who don't want to seek IP protection, our guide can provide information for them to make informed decisions. This aim really applies to everyone, because even people who don't want to get a patent/copyright/trademark themselves, they will still need to work in a world where these things exist.

Evidently, most respondents haven't been affected negatively by IP, or even been too bothered by it in general. A lot of us also don't know if we have been affected! These two groups might not actually be mutually exclusive.


Although 13% of respondents said they had been negatively affected by patents and 9% by other forms of IP, only 7% of respondents indicated they didn't want to protect their own IP. The majority replied that they wanted IP protection, which lets us know that an IP guide is something that would benefit a big part of the iGEM community.

There is a pretty even spread of answers as to whether BioBricks can be patented, but more than half think that we ''shouldn't'' patent them. Despite all of that, 75% of the survey-takers agree that iGEM teams are capable of producing projects that can be patented. Seeing as how BioBricks play such a big role, to what extent should or can we patent iGEM projects, if half of us think BioBricks shouldn't be IP protected?


With a considerable sample size and responses from both students and advisors, our survey results are fairly representative of the iGEM community. We've learned from the results that the majority of iGEMers want to learn more about intellectual property and think they will benefit from a custom-tailored guide, especially one on patents. There were a lot of undecided responses, which indicate that many are probably lacking the background needed to take a stance. Overall, the survey results show that the iGEM community is interested in IP, and that there exists a large audience for our guide.