"A lot of people are going to want to clone people they admire," says Andre Crump, president of the DNA Copyright Institute (DCI) of San Francisco. In theory at least, all someone needs to clone their hero or heroine is a few living cells from them left behind on a glass or exchanged in a handshake, for example.
For high-profile individuals worried they might fall victim, DCI is offering to record their DNA fingerprint, check that it is unique and store it. As the pattern's "author", the client will get copyright protection to prevent "actions such as DNA theft and misappropriation, cloning and other unauthorised activities", claims DCI's website.
At $1500, the price isn't likely to deter the glitterati, and Crump says 10 people have already taken advantage of what DCI's press release calls "a ground-breaking development on the issue of cloning and the rights of the individual". For an extra fee, the company will also try to register the pattern with the US Copyright Office, although this isn't necessary to establish copyright.
But lawyers dismiss claims that DNA can be copyrighted. "This is nonsense," says Stephen Barnett of the University of California, Berkeley. "Whoever is saying that is ignorant of the term copyright." The idea that a person "authors" their own DNA doesn't hold water legally, Barnett says. And even if it did, he doesn't think it would give them protection against being cloned.
DCI's legal counsel Matthew Marca disagrees. He insists that since clones will share the fingerprint of the original person, they will be in violation of copyright. When New Scientist pointed out to Marca that clones are not exact copies but often contain a new genetic component-mitochondrial DNA from the egg used to create an embryo-he seemed taken aback. After a pause, he responded confidently: "That is some of what will emerge in the eventual prosecution of DNA copyright."
New Scientist has also learned that the address provided on DCI's website at www.DNAcopyright.com, which appears to be a street address, is actually a commercial postal box. When asked about DCI's location, Crump admitted the month-old company is still negotiating office space and will outsource all the biochemistry work.
The idea of copyrighting DNA isn't new. New York-based conceptual artist Larry Miller started issuing $10 Genetic Code Copyright Certificates in 1992. These were never meant to be legally binding, but rather to highlight issues of ownership.
And San Francisco artist Marilyn Donahue has for the past few years been helping people to "copyright" their genome for a little more than the price of a postage stamp. Her method: simply take a photograph of yourself depositing DNA from your tongue onto the back of a stamp and mail it to yourself. Self-directed mail is often used by poets and writers to document the date of a work's creation and establish copyright.
Donahue isn't bothered that a company is trying to capitalise on DNA copyrighting. "I was kind of waiting for something like this to happen," she says. "I'm surprised it has taken this long."
Still, at least DCI's fee includes a personalised plaque. "Our type of clients will want something to hang on the wall and look good," says Crump.
But those seriously worried about being cloned should follow Bill Clinton's example. After he had a Guinness during a presidential visit to Dublin, his entourage reportedly bought the glass to ensure no one got hold of his DNA.
Author: Philip Cohen, San Francisco
New Scientist issue: 25th August 2001
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