I'm building a world where humans reproduce by machine, not by sex. Two or more individuals submit their DNA together to a breeding company. This company has pods that take multiple people's DNA, combine them in the most advantageous way (based on an algorithm), and turn it into egg and sperm, which become an embryo. The pod then feeds the embryo all the way through its development until it becomes a human baby, which then grows up to become a member of society.

Individuals have the option to pay extra for DNA from someone who is well-known for having a certain advantageous gene, such as the ability to run fast, sing well, have photographic memory, etc. So when the child grows up, he/she has the DNA of its parents, plus a part of DNA that is supposed to give it a certain biological advantage, which its parents paid extra for.

My question is this: when this child with extra DNA grows up and wants children of his/her own, does he/she have to pay extra for the part of their DNA that was paid extra for? Or, because it's already a part of them, can they just pay for the DNA combining at regular price like everyone else?

Who owns the gene? Is it solely the person who sold that part of his DNA for other humans to use, or is it also those people who now have that gene too?

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    $\begingroup$ For a techno-thriller look at the "who owns genes" question, read Next by Michael Crichton. $\endgroup$
    – Azuaron
    Oct 10, 2016 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ A statement from Monsanto explaining why they sue farmers who save seeds for replanting that may spur further thinking for your story. Why Does Monsanto Sue Farmers Who Save Seeds? $\endgroup$
    – Pooneil
    Oct 10, 2016 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Azuaron that book was also a plead to companies to NOT do that, and that the idea of owning genes is stupid and shouldn't be able to be done. $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2016 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ This seems quite open ended with no real correct answer. It would be one thing to ask who would own them in the context of existing US law, but in a world that could have any number of different laws, this smacks of an idea generation question. $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2016 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ Odds are, when these genetically enhanced people get to a stage of making their own children, there will be new famous people with even better genes. Also, people will still be going back to specific famous people. For example, you might have been given Da Vinci's genes, but when I want to buy them, I'm going to get them from Da Vinci. Also, there may be a diminishing from successive generations. After all, I don't know much about Einstein's kids but they don't seem to be as famous as he was. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2016 at 14:39

4 Answers 4


You can go many different directions, depending on what you want for plot and flavor. All of these have precedents in the history of intellectual property.

  • The lucky person with the photographic memory gene (and his/her heirs) get perpetual royalties.
  • You only pay for the gene for the first generation, then your children get it for free - but they can't re-sell it.
  • You only pay for the gene for the first generation, then your children get it for free and they can re-sell it.
  • The government can seize certain gene lines by eminent domain and distribute them to everybody/members of the military/members of the ruling party/...
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for all the alternatives! I'm leaning towards the second option so far $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2016 at 21:24

What you describe is very much a social contract, so the answer is 100% dependent on your story. You pick the answer you want, and you can build a society that leads to that answer. This is especially true since, given the way reproduction is done, this society has little to do with modern society.

Edit: So this answer is popular, so I'm loathe to delete it, but the comments below point out that I was misinformed. What's left after I strike that misinformation is minimal. However, I do think my misinformation may still have value for development of fictional worlds, so I'm leaving it here, struck out.

If you wish to stick close to US law, you could consider taking lessons from Monsanto, who makes genetically modified seeds. When they did so, the seed naturally bred with nearby fields and those nearby fields picked up those modified genes. Monsanto sought to sue those farm owners for copyright infringement, but the courts decided that they couldn't claim a copyright on their DNA product.

Monsanto's new solution is to make the crop sterile. In this way, all of their seeds are good for growing one year's crop, but the crop itself consists of seeds that themselves cannot foster a next generation. Thus, now farmers must buy new seed every year from Monsanto with their latest genetic modification.

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    $\begingroup$ Monsanto, right? Edit: see Monsano. $\endgroup$
    – Theraot
    Oct 10, 2016 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ Assuming the children own their own genes, that would be an interesting strategy for gene vendors, making the genes also infertile. Good food for thought, probably would cause another lawsuit in this hypothetical world $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2016 at 21:21
  • $\begingroup$ I feel the need to point out that most of what is said regarding Monsanto in the last 2 paragraphs are myths. Monsanto doesn't sue farmers over accidental contamination or cross pollination: npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/10/18/163034053/… Nor do they produce sterile seeds: monsanto.com/newsviews/pages/terminator-seeds.aspx $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2016 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeNichols Thanks for the links! I learned something! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 12, 2016 at 14:40

The way you ask the question makes it sound like you think that necessarily some one must own the gene and that there is some unique way to determine who. But patents are just government granted monopolies, they aren't some inherent property.

Have you considered the possibility that no one owns them? Especially since you are building the world yourself, it could be in your world that the laws are such that no one can own any genetic code whether it is naturally occurring or synthesized. Even in the US, naturally occurring gene sequences have been ruled as public domain. The company who developed and spliced the gene can still get paid for the service of placing that gene in a zygote and incubating it to term without needing to be paid specifically for a patent on a gene.

And if literally no one is having babies the old fashioned way, then they can even amortize some of their gene-sequencing costs over people who don't elect for gene-modification. (Of course they will still charge a nice premium for the service of modifying any genes. It's just they might have some market competition on that front)

  • $\begingroup$ I have considered that no one might own the genes, and I don't think it makes sense for my world. But thanks for the food for thought $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2016 at 21:27
  • $\begingroup$ @shieldgenerator7 then perhaps you should clarify that in the question. $\endgroup$ Oct 10, 2016 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ If no one owns genes (or, if they're public domain, it would be more appropriate to say everyone owns them), then how can they be sold/charge extra for them? $\endgroup$
    – Devsman
    Oct 11, 2016 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Devsman I disagree. Ownership implies some form of control over it. If you own something, you can generally stop some one from using it. $\endgroup$ Oct 11, 2016 at 13:58

This is, ultimately, a question of law and legislation. Intellectual property law enables persons and companies to hold rights over things they invent and create. However, things that are discovered cannot be patented or owned as intellectual property. For example, scientific discoveries cannot be owned. Otherwise Peter Higgs could be the owner of his boson. NASA might have to get a licence from the Estate of Sir Isaac Newton every time they launched a satellite. These examples are a bit silly, but they are for the purposes of illustration.

The real question is whether finding genes is a matter of discovery or of invention. if a company had invented a gene, perhaps building a completely new of a kind that had never existed before in nature, say, by using the techniques of synthetic biology, then they might be able to make a good case for owning it. However, if the same gene as discovered existing in nature, then their case for ownership is weakened and could be liable for a challenge in court.

A recent challenge over the ownership of a medical gene test kit was found in favour of the gene in question being a discovery and not an invention. This resulted in the test kit being able to be used widely without having to either get a licence to do so or have to pay the owners. Since the test was for a type of cancer there were a number of cancer patients who wanted the test kit being made readily available. So they felt it was in their interests to free the test kit from commercial restrictions.

On a similar topic, the ownership rights to oil and minerals in land you own aren't vested in the land owner. If a mining company takes out mining rights to pluvidium ore that might under your property, once they find the ore there the mining company owns the mineral and has the right to mine it. You may have been the land owner, but you never were the owner of any oil or minerals under it.

Similar arguments have been applied to the genes in your body. They may be there, and part of your flesh, but that fact doesn't give you ownership of them. If it did, then possibly your parents (and even their parents) might also have a claim on the ownership of your genes.

It is remarkable that Monsanto has a legal claim over the ownership of its genetically modified seeds. The genes involved in engineering the seeds would have been found through a process of discovery. Possibly, their ownership is vested in the art they exercised in creating the modified seeds. It is also possible that the court decisions that enabled them to claim ownership over their GMO seeds were based upon a misunderstanding about how science is conducted and the judges in question may have been dazzled by the genetic engineering techniques themselves.

There are no absolute criteria to determine who knows genes. It is a matter of legal precedent and practise, relevant intellectual property legislation, and the accumulated body of case law and court decisions. Ownership of genes will be refined and decided as more genes are discovered and more claims are made about whether they can be owned or not.

People make the laws, ownership is only a matter of law. When people change their minds about how something can or should be done under the law, then the laws change too.


Pluvidium is a purely fictious mineral. Anyone who thinks they have discovered it or who claims ownership of it, needs to brought back to reality.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for this answer; it gives me some good food for thought $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2016 at 0:17

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