Copyright term, open access and the NIH

As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, an Oxford graduate student in economics is soon to publish a paper arguing that the “optimal” term of copyright protection is just 14 years. This is vastly shorter than the current term of protection in the US, where the term is life of the author plus 70 years, or in nearly any other nation of the world. Although his conclusion may be too radical to be practical, Rufus Pollok’s calculations add some weight, if any was needed, to the argument that copyright protection has moved very far from its original goal of providing an incentive to authors to create and now nearly exclusively serves the economic interests of large commercial distributors.

Pollock bases some of his calculations on the argument that a shorter term becomes more desirable as technology makes reproduction and distribution easier. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the optimal term he arrives at – 14 years – was precisely the term provided by the first English copyright law, the 1709 Statute of Anne.

Even if the copyright term was vastly shorter than it now is, however, many of the arguments for open access to research and scholarship would remain just as strong. That there is great public benefit to wider access to cutting edge research, and great justice in providing taxpayers with no-toll access to the results of research for which they have already paid, are points that do not depend on the length of the copyright term. Even if the term were as short as Pollock proposes, more immediate public access would still be worthwhile pursuit; authors would still need to see that a right to open access deposit was included in their publication agreements and funders, especially government agencies, would still need to mandate such deposit whenever practical. But under our grossly over-extended term of protection, these needs are greatly amplified.

Congress is now considering an appropriations bill that includes funding for the National Institute of Health and, for the first time, would mandate that research funded by the NIH be deposited in the PubMed Central database within six months of publication. This language has clear the appropriations committee and will be considered on the House floor this week. Publishers have objected that this mandate might undermine copyrights, but this argument hardly seems convincing, since most publication agreements already allow authors to offer their own published work on the web. Authors must continue to read such agreements with great attention to be sure they retain this right, and Congress should not let this spurious argument prevent them from seeing the basic justice that demands passage of the NIH appropriations bill as it has come from committee.

Added note — The American Library Association has posted this Action Alert to assist those who would like to encourage Congress to support the NIH mandate.

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