Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cloners of the world, unite

I'm currently in a dispute with the biotech company Invitrogen, a big company that keeps getting bigger, having recently acquired Applied Biosystems. Here's a recent back-and-forth I've had with them regarding their decision to no longer allow academics to freely use a plasmid design & database program of theirs. Apparently this is having somewhat of an effect, in that the Invitrogen accounts reps have been hearing complaints from their clients at Harvard and MIT. I suppose my next step is to make announcements at various beer hours in the area, which has the benefit of allowing me to visit various beer hours in the area.

My original email:
Sent: Wed Jan 28 09:16:34 2009
Subject: vector nti

Hi Invitrogen corporation people,

I've been a long-time user of VectorNTI, and I'm quite disappointed with Invitrogen's decision to no longer allow free use to the academic community. I further take offense at what I consider to be disingenuous statements put out by the company regarding this decision. Upon announcing that VectorNTI 10 would no longer function, Invitrogen stated something along the lines of "affordable academic pricing" -- I see that a one year license costs $825. I can't think of any other program that costs this much, and this is only the price for one year! Additionally, Invitrogen stated that, because of the release of Vector NTI 11, it would no longer support Vector NTI 10, "as is standard software practice." This is false -- when Microsoft releases a new version of Word my old copy doesn't suddenly lock up. If you don't want to support version 10 then that is fine, but to essentially terminate the use of version 10 is most certainly not standard software practice. Finally, Invitrogen's tactic of offering something for free, getting people invested in its use, and then starting to charge exorbitant fees is a practice generally reserved for those selling cocaine, not a company "committed to unparalleled excellence and responsible stewardship."

I hope that Invitrogen revisits this issue. It would certainly be reasonable for Invitrogen simply to offer a non-expiring license for those using Vector NTI 10, with the caveat of no additional technical support.


Their reply:
Sent: Wed, Jan 28, 2009 at 3:41 PM
Subject: RE: vector nti

Dear Dr. XXXX,

Thank you for contacting Invitrogen. We take feedback from our customers seriously and I have forwarded your email to the Product Manager. I have attached instructions for how to export your files into Genbank format if you would like to use freeware or another software package. If your license expired, please use this trial license to access your data (expires 3/31/2009)

Please feel free to contact us at, if you need any assistance.


And the beginning of the "screw you" phase of negotiations, carbon-copied to all my scientist-friends:
Sent: Tue, Feb 3, 2009 at 8:53 AM
Subject: Re: vector nti

Thanks for the password to unlock the program. However, I still feel that Invitrogen's decision to prevent academics from using previous versions of VectorNTI "as is standard software practice" is condescending and disingenuous.

I just checked my lab's order list. In the first month of 2009, we ordered over $1000 of products from Invitrogen, the vast majority of which could easily be purchased from competitors, simple products like enzymes, vectors, chemicals, etc. I'm going to recommend to my labmates that we boycott Invitrogen's products; indeed, I'll make it easy on them by suggesting substitute vendors, such as NEB for enzymes, Clontech for vectors, Invivogen for selective media, etc. I'll be sure to mention this idea to other labs in the building, as no one wants to ask his or her boss for an extra ~$1000 to buy a computer program, especially in this tight funding environment. I'll also carbon-copy this email to friends from graduate school, and urge them to pass it around their current institutions.

Invitrogen should realize that very few biomed companies have a monopoly on any particular product, and the vendor of choice for the vast majority of scientists is the vendor that treats them right -- decent prices, good documentation, and a general sense of not being a giant Evil Company. Invitrogen is certainly in danger of becoming such a behemoth.