Software: This mail contains a fantastic anecdote from The Common Thread: Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome, by John Sulston, head of the Sanger Centre, and a joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. I’ll reproduce some bits here:
Once the first fluorescence sequencing machines arrived, it became clear that we had to take control of the software. The machines worked well, but ABI (jm: the vendor) wanted to keep control of the data analysis end by forcing their customers to use their proprietary software. …
I could not accept that we should be dependent on a commercial company for the handling and assembly of the data we were producing. The company even had ambition to take control of the analysis of the sequence, which was ridiculous. …
So, one hot summer Sunday afternoon, I sat on the lawn at home with printouts spread all around me and decrypted the ABI file that stored the trace data. … Within a very few days, Rodger and his group had written display software that showed the traces – and there we were. The St Louis team joined in, and they all went to decrypt more of the ABI files, so that we had complete freedom to design our own display and analysis systems. It transformed our productivity. Previously we’d only been able to get the traces as printouts, which we bound together in fat notebooks ….
I certainly feel that between us we did push ABI back a bit and denied to them complete control of this downstream software. It was the first experience of the kind of battle for control of information that I seem to have been fighting with commercial companies ever since: a foretaste of the much larger battles that would later surround the human genome.
Amazing. Was John Sulston the first Nobel Prize-winner to have to reverse-engineer a proprietary file format in the course of his research?
And would his actions be legal in the UK in a few years, once the IPR Enforcement Directive is transposed into law there?