Last week I was attending a meeting on campus that had nothing to do with e-science (which today refers to virtually all science, I suppose) when a very fortuitous event occurred.  Professor Jerome Reichman of the Duke Law School handed me a copy of the April 2012 issue of the Minnesota Law Review (vol. 96, no. 4).  That entire issue is an article written by Reichman and Professor Ruth Okediji of the University of Minnesota Law school called “When Copyright Law and Science Collide: Empowering Digitally Integrated Research Methods in a Global State.”  It is a long article at 118 pages, although, because of the structure and conventions of law review articles in general, it is a quicker read than one might expect.  More importantly, however, it is a very rewarding excursion into the ways that copyright law around the world have developed and become an obstacle to scientific research, an even more “immediate and pervasive threat”, the authors suggest, than the more attention-grabbing problem of patent thickets.

The purpose of this post is to summarize the article and commend it to those who want more.  The growing interest in e-science on campuses makes this a timely topic; we need to understand the potential difficulties that copyright law can create for digital research and scientific communications. And I have to begin by saying how grateful I am to Jerry Reichman for making the effort to keep me current with the work he and Ruth Okediji are doing.  They are superb scholars whose work could and should have a direct impact on how universities support research and advocate for laws that facilitate, or at least do not impede, that research. Their joint work has tackled scientific issues and IP before, so I am delighted they are turning their considerable intellects to copyright and science.  Jerry is also a good friend and, as I now know thanks to my young cousin who had him as her Contract Law professor a couple of years ago, a fine teacher.

Reichman and Okediji begin their article with an historical examination of the “growing divide between copyright law and scientific research” that encompasses both the unique conditions in the U.S. and international obstacles to science that arise out of the complex of treaties and directives that are now in place.  They demonstrate convincingly that the traditional balance that has facilitated scientific research for years has been subverted recently by a variety of factors.  Among these unhappy developments are the trend toward ever more protectionist approaches to copyright, database protection rules in the EU and judge-made protection for facts and data in the U.S.,  the use of technological protection measures to lock up data that would otherwise be free for scientific reuse, and an overemphasis on the so-called three-step test from the Berne Convention, which is too often applied without any normative guidance.

In the course of this discussion, Reichman and Okediji make an interesting observation about limitations and exceptions to copyright in general, and fair use in particular.  They note that the traditional European approach to exceptions focuses on specific, narrow exceptions that lack flexibility.  There is little surprise in their conclusion that the EU needs the flexibility of fair use.  But they are also critical of the “all or nothing” approach that fair use fosters, where a use is either forbidden as infringing, or, if found to be fair use, does not allow for any compensation of the rights holder.  In some situations, they suggest, especially when the path to scientific progress leads through commercial users, a “take and pay” rule, similar to what is found in the EU three-step test, might be welcome.

The overall situation that Reichman and Okediji outline is most unpromising, as they suggest that the rights of scientific users are shrinking even in the area of print media, and have been virtually eliminated for science conducted in the online environment.  Again, the growing trend toward copyright or copyright-like protection over data is a large part of the problem.

In the area of e-science, Reichman and Okediji offer scientific research a Hobson’s choice between ignoring laws that have become unmanageable and unreasonable, or foregoing research opportunities.  The two paragraphs in which they lay out these unavoidable options are worth quoting in full:

If the relevant intellectual property laws were strictly enforced, and the scientific community continued to respect them, scarce public resources earmarked for basic research would be siphoned off to intermediaries from scientists seeking access to and use of their own published research result.  In that event, the public pays twice for the same output, plus a surcharge for mushrooming transaction costs … Less innovation, not more, is the predictable result over time.

Conversely, if intellectual property laws are ignored by researchers determined to carry on with their work irrespective of unreasonable legal constraints, automated knowledge discovery tools will become transformed into engines of massive infringement.  It is hard to see how systematic disregard of intellectual property laws, coupled with growing contempt for the legislative process that fosters them, will benefit authors, artists and other creators in the long run, especially when those condemned to outlaw status are not free-riders on costly musical and cinematic productions, but publicly-funded scientific researchers in pursuit of greater knowledge and applications that benefit humanity as a whole.

This is a situation that cries out for reform, and it is clear from the above that reform must begin by distinguishing scientific and academic research from commercial productions.  One-size fits all copyright laws are failing the scholarly community, and legislators and judges need to begin to treat scholarly works differently.  Fortunately, Reichman and Okediji provide us with a detailed set of recommendations about what kind of reforms are needed.

One reform they suggest that judges could accomplish would be the aforementioned “take and pay” approach to some uses that might otherwise be defended, probably unsuccessfully, as fair use.  The authors point out that Justice Souter suggested just such a possibility in a footnote to the Supreme Court’s decision in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (the “Pretty Woman” case) but no judges have, up till now, taken the hint.  The discussion from Reichman and Okediji on this point alone justifies a close look at the article.

Many of the other reforms they suggest are grouped under the heading “What E-Science Really Needs from Any Legislative Reform.”  In that astonishing collection of suggestions, Reichman and Okediji include a tailor-made exemption for scientific research, rules allowing the breaking of technological locks more freely for research purposes, and limitations on the ability to override copyrights limitations and exceptions by using terms of use and other contractual arrangements.  And one other that we should mention that is particularly relevant in the international context is an alignment between database protection rules and copyright exceptions.  Not only should copyright exceptions be used to adjust database protection laws, say the authors, but these exceptions, both as the apply to copyright per se and to sui generis data protections, must be “preemptory, mandatory and immune from both contractual overrides and TPMs” (citing a report from the Max Plank Institute).

There is so much to digest in this article that I feel a little abashed trying to summarize it.  But one thing is certain, I think.  The attention that Reichman and Okediji shine on the conflict between copyright laws and scientific progress is simultaneously profoundly welcome and deeply troubling.  Welcome because we must look at the problem squarely and honestly, and troubling because we have such a long way to go to solve it.


2 Responses to The collision of copyright and e-science

  1. [...] post on the Duke Libraries blog titled The collision of copyright and e-science reporting on a huge article [available for download here] in the Minnesota Law Review. Here’s [...]

  2. [...] recent post by Kevin Smith of Duke University Libraries, The collision of copyright and e-science, nicely summarizes an article recently given to him by a friend and Duke Law School faculty member, [...]