Venter patents synthetic life?

Jocelyn Kaiser writes:

The work involves a simple bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium that Venter's eponymous institute in Rockville, Maryland, has been tinkering with for years. An early goal was to determine the minimum number of genes for life, and in 1999, scientists there published a rough tally. Now, they want to synthesize this "minimal genome" from scratch, get it working inside a cell, then add genes that would enable the bug to crank out hydrogen or ethanol to produce cheap energy (Science, 14 February 2003, p. 1006). The Venter Institute describes this plan in a patent application filed last October and published on 31 May by the U.S. Patent Office.
The ETC Group, a technology watchdog group based in Ottowa [sic], Canada, is alarmed. They compare Venter's plans to patent a platform for building designer microbes to Microsoft's domination of personal computer software, suggesting that it's "the start of a high-stakes commercial race to synthesize and privatize synthetic life forms." ETC is calling for Venter to withdraw the application and for the U.S. and international patent offices to reject it so that societal implications can be considered.

World Science also has a writeup that includes this Venter quote:

"If we made an organism that produced fuel, that could be the first billion- or trillion-dollar organism," said Venter in the June 4 issue of Newsweek magazine.

On the one hand, there's nothing all that unusual about this -- it's already routine to patent strains or organisms based on recombinant DNA. The synthetic bacterial platform may produce greater license fees, since anyone who wanted to develop an application would have to buy a license. But it's not fundamentally different from the status quo.

On the other hand, Venter is starting to seem a lot like that creepy guy in Blade Runner who owns the android-making corporation. You know, the guy with the Coke-bottle glasses who has his office in the big sunny pyramid building. Except, with Venter it's a boat.