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Who Owns Your Clone? 

A San Francisco firm thinks it's time people started copyrighting their DNA

Wednesday, Sep 12 2001
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It is a sunny August afternoon, and entrepreneur Andre Crump lounges on a couch near the fireplace in the Canvas Cafe, a posh restaurant-gallery. Wearing glasses, a blue dress shirt, slacks, and shiny shoes, Crump -- a regular at the cafe -- blends easily into the well-heeled crowd.

Much of the publicity for Crump's new business, launched earlier that month, is done at this very spot in the cafe. As if in the comfort of his own home, Crump leans back on the couch cushions as he philosophizes about his latest enterprise, the DNA Copyright Institute -- supposedly the world's first and only personal DNA copyrighting service.

As Crump explains it, the purpose of the institute is to protect people -- especially celebrities -- from being genetically cloned by mad scientists or rabid fans, a well-worn pitch that he has offered to media organizations worldwide.

"When people think about cloning, it seems like something far off, like science fiction," the Inner Sunset resident says. "But that view is about a decade old. And if you look at cloning technology you can see a lot of good uses, and some abuses. One abuse might be by people who greatly admire celebrities, maybe Michael Jordan or Christy Turlington, and any celebrity will tell you that these fans would go to that level [cloning] if possible. It's the ultimate collectible, so to speak."

Crump began publicizing the institute at a good time, when cloning was splashed all over newspaper headlines. Only a few days before the institute's Aug. 14 launch, renegade scientists who hoped to clone humans appeared before a National Academy of Sciences panel, and the House of Representatives also banned human cloning. Though Crump's ideas on the subject can be perceived as premature and even paranoid, some legal experts from local universities agree that DNA copyrighting is "a novel idea." Indeed, the concept of copyrighting DNA isn't Crump's brainchild -- legal academics have been talking about it for over 10 years.

But the institute itself is the subject of much debate because it operates on controversial interpretations of legal theory. Though Crump did not come up with the idea of copyrighting DNA, he is apparently the first to devise an actual method to do it. Because copyright law requires something to be in a "fixed and tangible" form, the institute takes sample DNA and creates a visual representation through a series of graphs, or a DNA profile. Crump charges $1,500 per client and says he has already signed up 10 people. His Web site, he says, has attracted about 10,000 visitors in the last three weeks.

Some copyright experts, however, say that there is no reason to copyright DNA, and that it would not hold up in court.

Crump is unfazed by the skepticism and believes people have a right to be protected from unauthorized cloning. "If I were Ricky Martin, I'd be worried about my fans cloning me," Crump says. "People are very excitable."

He also believes that the legal theorists who doubt him are simply being shortsighted. "We want to extend copyright law into a new frontier," he says. "Every new technological development requires new perceptions of law."

But most copyright experts are wary. "It's a novel idea, in terms of the practical idea [of implementing it], but under the law, it's a far-fetched one," says Howard Anawalt, a Santa Clara University law professor. "It would tend to put copyright law on its head."

Is Crump a genius or a misguided entrepreneur? The answer will remain unclear until the U.S. Copyright Office responds to a DNA profile that the institute plans to submit in October. (The Copyright Office has already issued a statement saying it will not accept DNA copyrights; Crump, however, believes his DNA profiles will qualify.)

In the meantime, Crump has already garnered international press attention from Italy, Britain, and Germany, drumming up business for a service that is based on a scenario that may never present itself, and legal arguments that have yet to be proven.


Crump is a compact, congenial man who frequently flashes a winsome, deal-closing grin. His mellifluous voice bears a slight affectation commonly associated with used-car salesmen. And with his experience as a former marketing executive for AT&T, Sun Microsystems, and Apple Computers, Crump knows a little something about selling himself.

Crump also attracts local press as an author, and he says publishing books is the reason he became familiar with copyright law. His second book was released in May, titled Everything I Know About Dating I Learned in Business School; his first book was a photo essay called Green Eyes: The Greenest Fields.

But Crump considers himself much more than an author and entrepreneur. He is also a polyglot (French, Spanish, and some Portuguese and Italian) who owns two telecommunications patents and does marketing for the San Francisco Zoo. In an online biography, Crump calls himself "a world traveler" and a "successful dating mogul."

And as someone who has worked with local nonprofits and South African anti-apartheid campaigns, Crump asserts that the DNA Copyright Institute is not just a business but a cause.

"The business is secondary," he says. "We want to continue the debates. We want to encourage copyright law to, as much as possible, be broadly interpreted so that what can be copyrighted will always be expanded. Some years ago, computer programs could not [be protected by copyright], and digital media could not -- until it was recognized that they were an expansion of it [copyright law]. We're looking at how DNA copyrighting fits into that model."

Crump says that originally he wasn't even interested in copyrighting -- he was merely trying to think up a way to make sure everyone had ownership of his own DNA.

"I was looking at how you can stop it [cloning]," Crump recalls. "I asked myself, "Can you encrypt DNA?' No, you can't now, but you do have a legal remedy that can deter it based on existing law -- copyright. So we're setting a legal precedent. We're out there trailblazing because no one has considered the issue or the possibilities."

Concepts of individual rights also play into the institute's philosophical cause. "There should be an individual's right to legal remedy," asserts Matt Marca, the institute's lawyer. "If an individual is cloned right now, they have no right to go after the person that cloned them. Individual rights are not being addressed."

But legal experts think the institute's legal arguments are flawed. They doubt whether, under existing law, DNA can be copyrighted, and they question whether the institute's methods will meet technical standards.

The basis of the debate revolves around the U.S. Copyright Act, which "extends protection to original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device."

While Crump asserts that cloning is a new way to "reproduce" the "original work" of DNA, University of Minnesota law professor Dan Burk -- who has been writing about this issue for more than 10 years -- says there is a theoretical problem to that argument. "Copyright law covers original works of authorship -- that is, works that embody human creativity," he explains. "It does not cover facts or objects found in a state of nature. There is no reason to believe that an individual's genomic complement incorporates any "originality' or "creativity' as this is understood in copyright law."

Burk says the institute's method is also problematic because should the DNA profile -- "basically some black spots or smudges" -- be accepted for a copyright, the profile would be protected from reproduction, not necessarily the DNA itself.

"To the extent that copyright protects anything, it does so automatically, as soon as the work is fixed in a tangible medium," adds Burk, who teaches biotechnology, patent, and copyright law. "If an individual's DNA sequence could be protected by copyright, there would be no need for a service to do anything."

And in reality, the threat of human cloning is not yet immediate. "It's not very likely that anyone will soon have a reliable method for cloning healthy humans because the state of work in animals, as with Dolly the sheep, is still burdened by a low success rate," says Louis M. Guenin of Harvard Medical School. "So as merely a technical matter, it is going to be very difficult to produce a healthy human clone.

"In the short run, cloning of healthy humans is not likely to happen," Guenin says. "In the long run, you can imagine all these technical problems being solved, but it's not clear whether it will be permitted in the U.S."

While Crump and attorney Marca acknowledge the challenges their business faces, they remain bright about its possibilities.

"There are a lot of technological, legal, scientific, and ethical issues around this, but the only issue we are interested in addressing is the thought that you could not own your own DNA profile," Crump says.

"We expect resistance," Marca adds. "There's been resistance with every expansion, with computer software, and then with digital media."

But what, in the end, does the institute's work say about their faith in humanity? "It's our belief that even if there's a law against it, someone will try to do it," Marca says.

"We're pragmatic realists," Crump says. "Or pragmatic optimists. But we're not pessimists."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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