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Taking on the Database Challenge–and Winning

Score one for the scientific community, which banded together to stop a proposed intellectual-property treaty that would have privatized huge stores of knowledge.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Diplomatic Conference on Intellectual Property Rights in Respect of Databases held last December in Geneva. Dull stuff? Perhaps, but it cloaks a major challenge to the integrity of science. This treaty was one of three intellectual property rights agreements considered by the World Intellectual Property Rights Organization (WIPO). Unprecedented actions of the scientific community, however, successfully blocked it from taking effect.

At issue was the fair use of databases for scientific research and education. Free and open exchange of scientific data, after all, is considered the lifeblood of scientific research. The treaty would have led to a clash between the protection of the public good and the protection of private intellectual property. Had the draft treaty been approved, it would have extended the protection of intellectual property rights well beyond those provided by present copyright laws and treaties, in a way that would have spelled trouble for scientific research and education.

Present copyright law permits the use of private databases for the advancement of research and education, which are considered public goods. Thus, browsing databases on the Internet for research or educational purposes now requires no compensation to the database creator. Scientists and educators routinely extract information from maps, for instance, and from graphs displaying the geographical distribution of variables such as ocean temperature.

The proposed treaty, however, lacks any such provision. Use of a private database would be banned-or at least require payment to the database owner. And because property rights in data could be extended for an indefinite period merely by some minor change in format, the treaty would provide, in effect, for the perpetual protection of databases.

The ambiguously worded treaty would apply to all privately generated data “that represent a substantial investment.” The director of the National Library of Medicine expressed concerns that under the treaty anyone could download publicly available data on the human genome, and-by making minor changes such as affixing dates-claim property rights.

Commercial enterprises understandably want to protect their investments in data collection and compilation. Such data are assembled in many cases at great expense, and, in a digital age, control of the information’s distribution is slipping beyond the owner’s control. But such protection could go too far: a database owner would certainly be tempted, under this treaty, to invoke its property rights and thus require anyone who tapped into the database on the Net to pay for the privilege.

As the Geneva WIPO conference loomed, scientific organizations made a stand against the treaty. The National Research Council called the proposed changes “antithetical to the principle of the full and open exchange of data.” The presidents of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine wrote to senior government officials expressing their concerns. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) convened a conference on the problem and asked the U.S. Government to delay initialing the treaty. The AAAS focused on critical fields of science, such as geophysics, where the free and open exchange of environmental data might be severely restricted. This is happening now with meteorological data generated in Europe; governments there have already adopted provisions similar to those of the proposed treaty and have put strict limits on the transmission of their data to third parties. The Association of Research Libraries weighed in too, as did various universities and professional societies.

Once alerted to the implications for science, government officials were quick to voice their views. The director of the National Science Foundation expressed dismay that the scientific community had not been consulted on a treaty with such large ramifications for research. Under Secretary of State Timothy Wirth joined the fray, as did the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and senior officials of the National Institutes of Health. As a result of these objections, the treaty’s signing has been put off. Researchers and educators now have an opportunity to shape the U.S. position and obtain a text more congenial to their interests.

There is a lesson in this experience. Acting in unison, the scientific community can have a powerful influence on matters that affect research. More than 200 years ago, John Philpot Curran enunciated the principle that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”As this episode demonstrates, the same can be said of the integrity of science.

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