NIH public access and copyright

Last Tuesday the Senate passed a FY 2008 appropriations bill that included language making it mandatory for investigators funded by the National Institute of Health to place the published versions of their results in the open access PubMed Central database within one year of publication. There is a new release about the policy, which was passed by the House in July, here from the Alliance for Taxpayer Access.

A consultant for publishing groups recently posted several questions about how the policy relates to authors’ copyrights on a library listserv, intended to convince academic authors that the policy is some kind of threat to them. By responding to those questions below, I hope to clarify the real relation between this new mandate and author’s rights.

The first question was whether supporters of the NIH mandate believe authors should own their copyrights, including the right to charge for their work. In my opinion, an author should have ownership rights in their own work. I also recognize that the unique nature of intellectual property means that those rights have to be subject to limitations and exceptions in the public interest. Every copyright law in the world, and all of the international treaties, recognize and allow for such limitations and exceptions, so this is not a radical proposition. In any case, the NIH policy is not a threat or challenge to copyright ownership. In fact, the explicit language of the provision passed last week requires that the mandate be implemented in a way consistent with an author’s ownership of copyright.

All that the NIH mandate requires is that authors give to the NIH a non-exclusive right to distribute their work no later than one year after it is published. This demand is a much more modest limitation on authorial rights than is the complete transfer of copyright still demanded by many publishers as a precondition of publication. There is no evidence that this delayed and non-exclusive license would harm an author’s ability to charge for her work, although that part of the copyright has little application in the world of academic authorship. On the other hand, there is evidence that public access as soon as possible will benefit an author’s reputation, which is the real value academic authors are able to extract from their copyright ownership.

The second question was whether supporters of NIH deposit believe that authors should have the right to transfer their rights by contract. Again, I support that right very strongly; I spend a good deal of my time advising academic authors about how to accomplish these transfers in a thoughtful manner that benefits them, not just the other party to the transfer. Again, the NIH policy will not impair the ability to do this, it will simply make such contracts subject to the non-exclusive license described above. Governments often put restrictions and requirements on the contents of contracts; it would be absurd to claim that the Uniform Commercial code has seriously impeded a manufacturer’s ability to sell his goods, even though contracts for sale are much more heavily regulated than a publication contract is, even after the NIH mandate.

One must remember that deposit in PubMed Central will not be required until one year after publication, so there is lots of room to negotiate the exact terms by which that non-exclusive license will be implemented. I will certainly advise authors to negotiate for earlier deposit, since it will be to their benefit to do so.

Finally, supporters were challenged about whether they believe academic work is “work for hire” that is owned by their employing universities, and whether they also felt other faculty work,like inventions, should belong to the school. It seems to me that academic work should not be work for hire, although I recognize the strong legal basis on which some universities claim that it is. My preference is for clear policies that leave academic ownership of copyright in the authors’ hands. But again, the NIH policy has nothing to do with work for hire; it certainly does not involve any claim that funding of research makes a work a work made for hire. Such a claim would be insupportable under our current definition of work for hire.

When something is a work for hire, the ownership of the copyrights vests immediately with the employer. In contrast, the NIH is only requiring, again, a non-exclusive license to distribute which will not have to come into being until well more than a year after the copyright vests in the author.

As for other types of intellectual property, I would note that many academics are not uncomfortable with a work for hire claim over patentable inventions because they recognize that university resources are much more involved in such creations and that the assistance of the university is needed to pursue the complex and expensive process of obtaining a patent. Copyright protection is very different in its origination and its terms, so it is quite rightly treated differently.

Responding to these challenges helped me clarify for myself that the real threat to authors’ copyrights is not the NIH public access policy, but an outdated approach to publishing that tries to build an exclusive market around a non-competitive good (which means a good that can be distributed widely without diminishing its supply or value to the creator).

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