Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Barbed Wire in the Research Field. (1. the Money Game)

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Barbed Wire in the Research Field. (1. the Money Game)

Article excerpt

As patent claims surge and intellectual property rights are tightened, researchers are struggling to safeguard the free movement of information, a key condition for pursuing their work

Were said to be living in the knowledge society, but does this mean that knowledge is easier to come by and moving about more freely? Has access to knowledge--a basic academic freedom--improved? Technological strides undoubtedly make for easier access to information. But the movement of knowledge is more than a matter of technology; it is also governed by intellectual property rights, which impose their own limits. What is the "right balance" between private ownership of knowledge and distributing it to the public free of charge?

Many scientists, feeling their freedom is under threat, have taken action. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), one of the leading university research centres in the United States, recently announced that it is putting all its courses and teaching resources on the web free of charge. Furthermore, over 22,000 scientists from 161 countries have launched a boycott of science publication editors and started campaigning for a "public science library."

Legal hurdles

"We really don't see why we should hand our royalties over to a publisher whose goal is first and foremost a lucrative one, when we have done all the work," says boycott participant Michael Ashburner, a biology professor at Cambridge University in the UK. "These publishing houses set such exhorbitant subscription prices that even in rich countries, it's sometimes impossible to gain access to some information. You can imagine where that leaves scientists in developing countries."

In the past few years, technological progress has prompted the U.S. Congress and the European Commission to strengthen intellectual property rights. These reforms gained a global character under the aegis of the World Intellectual Property Rights Organization (WIPO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), through the TRIPS accords (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). Since 1995, any state engaging in trade has had to comply with this new legal order that covers such sensitive matters as the length of time a text can be protected by copyright and possible legal exceptions to this (known as "fair use"). By and large, exceptions cover private copy (for personal, non-commercial use only) and quotation rights for scientific, educational and academic purposes.

Under cover of international standardization, the length of time literary or artistic intellectual property can be protected has just been increased from 50 to 70 years after the author's death. Concretely, this means that less scientific information is freely accessible in the public domain.

Furthermore, computer product manufacturers have developed "technical measures" to fight "piracy" and prevent copying (of software, databases and so on), which keeps users from enjoying their full rights under the principle of fair use. Worse, trying to steer around these "technical measures" could spell legal trouble. Soon, anyone who tries to exercise legitimate copyrights could be prosecuted!

More generally, the scope of information and knowledge that qualifies for protection is on the rise. Biotechnology, the human genome and even stem cells are starting to enter this domain, creating tight restrictions on genetic research. The same goes for "teaching methods" and databases. For a while now, there have even been attempts to protect ideas and algorithms. …

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