Kembrew McLeod is an independent documentary filmmaker and a media studies scholar at the University of Iowa whose work focuses on both popular music and the cultural impact of intellectual property law. This Gene is Your Gene is the first chapter of Kembrew’s book ‘Freedom of Expression®: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property’. An abridged version has been published here acknowledging its Creative Commons License. You can buy a print of the book or read it online.
fencing off the folk and genetic commons
by Kembrew McLeod*
“This gene is your gene,” sang Francis Collins, playfully reworking an old Woody Guthrie song, with electric guitar in hand. “This gene is my gene,” he continued, backed up by the lumbering roar of a middle-aged rock band. This was no ordinary club gig; he was singing at a post–press conference party for scientists. Collins was the man who headed up the Human Genome Project (HGP), funded by the National Institutes of Health, and he was trying to make an ethical and political point. Since the mid-1990s, Collins’s HGP had raced against a private effort to map the human genome in order to make our genetic information freely accessible, not privately owned and patented by a handful of corporations. Any scientist could examine HGP’s genome map for free—unlike the Celera Genomics’ privately owned draft, which was published with strings attached. Over the din, Collins chided his competitors in song by genetically modifying Guthrie’s lyrics:
This draft is your draft, this draft is my draft,
And it’s a free draft, no charge to see draft.
It’s our instruction book, so come on, have a look,
This draft was made for you and me.
Dr. Francis Collins reworked “This Land Is Your Land” to argue that genetic information should be freely available to the scientiﬁc community. However, his use of that Woody Guthrie song was sadly ironic, on multiple levels. “This Land Is Your Land” is a song written by an unabashed socialist as a paean to communal property…. The folk-song tradition from which Guthrie emerged valued the open borrowing of lyrics and melodies; culture was meant to be freely created and recreated in a democratic, participatory way.
If this was so, then why was Collins’s use of “This Land Is Your Land” painfully ironic? Even though it was written over sixty years ago, the song is, to quote Woody Guthrie himself, still “private property.” Guthrie based the melody of “This Land Is Your Land” on the Carter Family’s 1928 recording “Little Darlin’ Pal of Mine,” which in turn was derived from a nineteenth-century gospel song, “Oh, My Loving Brother.” This means that, in the twenty-ﬁrst century, the publishing company that owns the late Guthrie’s music can earn money from a song about communal property, which was itself based on a tune that is over a century old. Far more disturbing, Guthrie’s publishing company prevents musicians from releasing altered, updated lyrical versions of that song. We won’t be hearing Collins’s mutated “This Gene Is Your Gene” anytime soon.
What’s the connection, you might be wondering, between folk music and genetic research? Although obviously very different endeavors, the practitioners of both used to value the open sharing of information (i.e., melodies or scientiﬁc data). In these communities, “texts” were often considered common property, but today this concept has been fundamentally altered by the process of privatization, that is, the belief that shared public resources—sometimes referred to by economists and social scientists as the commons—can be better managed by private industries. And in recent years, there’s been a signiﬁcant erosion of both the cultural commons and the genetic commons, resulting in a shrinking of the public domain. The fact that folk melodies and lyrics are now privately owned rather than shared resources is a depressing example of how our cultural commons is being fenced off. As for the genetic commons, the patenting of human and plant genes is but the furthest logical extension of privatization—taken at times to illogical lengths.