Academics in North America fear that stricter copyright laws and practices are compromising the tradition of building on shared research.
Corporations and governments are seen by many as supporting a tendency to restrict access to research and source material. And in some cases, universities are compounding the problem by requiring academics to check with senior administrators before submitting articles to journals.
David Bollier, co-founder of the Washington-based advocacy group Public Knowledge and author of Brand-Name Bullies , told a conference, Controlling Intellectual Property , in Canada last month that the patenting of basic research in biotechnology and computing was making innovation in more applied areas difficult because so much knowledge was kept out of the public domain.
He cited the examples of patenting of a protein connected to cancer and osteoporosis, and a mathematical algorithm used in computer software.
He said that the fashion industry had benefited from there not being a huge amount of proprietary power at its basic "research" level. "No one can own a patent to the herringbone suit or the peasant dress," he said. Because no one had locked up its fundamentals, fashion had, over the years, remained robust and innovative.
Mr Bollier supported calls for publicly funded research to be publicly disseminated.
Growing restrictions placed by universities on faculty include collective agreements that stipulate that they must check with vice-principals for research before seeking publication.
Samuel Trosow, a specialist in intellectual property at the University of Western Ontario, said: "If we are told by administrators that we need permission to publish, we are in a very sorry situation." Citing corporate culture's intrusion into universities, he added: "Whenever you see the word 'partner', watch your wallet."
When corporations turned the fruits of intellectual capital into private property, they were able to stop others from hearing about research, even to the extent of restricting access to data on potential pharmaceutical risks, Professor Trosow said.
The Canadian Government is amending its copyright law, leading many at the conference to fear that copyright holders will have greater powers and be able to place more restrictions on the dissemination and availability of knowledge materials.
Kathleen Shearer, co-ordinator of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries Institutional Repository Project, was encouraged that 75 per cent of academic journals now allowed authors to place refereed papers on personal or university webpages, or in library repositories.
The Canadian Institute for Health Research pledged to make all its research findings publicly available, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council also made smaller steps in the same direction.
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