Brussels, 15 Apr 2003
An expert group on intellectual property rights (IPRs) has warned that rules governing the protection of copyrights, database rights and patents hamper scientific endeavour and must be changed 'in the interest of society'.
In a report entitled 'Keeping science open: the effects of intellectual property policy on the conduct of science', a working group on IPR issues for the UK's Royal Society examines the effects of intellectual property policies on the conduct of science, and makes a number of practical recommendations.
Outlining a principal that underpins much of the report, the group states that: 'Although IPRs can aid the conversion of good science to tangible benefits, the fact that they are monopolies can cause a tension between private profit and public good. Not least, they can hinder the free exchange of ideas and information on which science thrives.'
In trying to reconcile the rights of the IPR owners with the progress of science, the group states that: 'A good balance provides just sufficient incentive to encourage research and development by potential right holders but retains a high level of benefit for society.'
In carrying out their examination of the effects of various types of IPR on science, the group focussed on those forms which, in their minds, are most relevant to the generation of scientific knowledge and innovation: patents, database rights and copyrights.
With regards to patents, the working group concluded that patenting in itself rarely delays the publication of results significantly, but that it could encourage a climate of secrecy which limits the free flow of ideas. Additionally, the report warns that research can be constrained by patents being granted that are overly broad in scope, particularly in the early stages of development of a field of science.
In response, the report suggests that governments make it clear to national and regional patent offices that their goal is to examine applications rigorously and fairly rather than grant as many patents as possible. Secondly, when granting patents, examiners should consult experts, particularly in developing areas of science, to ensure that their own understanding is sufficiently high.
From a global perspective, the group believes that developing countries should not be required to implement the agreement on trade related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS), designed to harmonise IP laws and facilitate world trade, until the benefits in terms of innovation clearly outweigh the costs and restraints inherent in IP systems.
The issue of copyrights is mainly associated with publication of research results in scientific journals. Traditionally, the publisher of the journal owns the copyright in exchange for adding significant value, through a high quality peer review system and the wide dissemination of the work.
Scientists rely on the principle of 'fair dealing' exceptions to copyright in order to reproduce certain amounts of information, but while new digital technologies have reduced the price of publication and delivery, the report notes that various technical measures have been introduced to prevent access and threaten fair dealing usage.
The group concludes that fair dealing exceptions are vital for science, and that scientists themselves must choose to publish their work in low cost journals that combine liberal access policies with high quality and long term availability.
The group takes a similar view on database rights, where they say media and commercial interests have resulted in legislation that rewards the creator of the database rather than the creator of the data, making it very difficult to extract and re-use except under restricted arrangements.
Again, the report encourages scientists, as the creators of such data, to ensure that their work remains accessible to others by selecting free or cheap databases that are both accessible and allow data manipulation.
In conclusion, the study warns that: '[...] although IPRs are needed to stimulate innovation and investment, commercial forces are leading in some areas to legislation and case law that unreasonably and unnecessarily restrict freedom to access and use information and to carry out research. [This] is not in the interests of society and unduly hampers scientific endeavour.'
To read the full report, please consult the following web address: