Last night I attended a Policy Lab event at the Royals Society examining intellectual property in Science. The meeting discussed a report entitled “Who owns Science” produced by the Institute of Science, Ethics and Innovation at Manchester University. Speakers included John Alty, Chief Executive of the UK’s intellectual property office; Adam Heathfield, director of science policy for Europe at Pfizer; Charles Leadbeater, author of “We Think” and former advisor to Tony Blair; and Sir John Sulston, who amongst many things is chair of the Institute of Science, Ethics and Innovation at Manchester. I must confess that from the outset I was sceptical about the value of this meeting – at least to me personally, and for its value addressing the issues that a majority of my colleagues face when dealing with intellectual property. After seeing the press this morning I think at least some of that scepticism was justified.
Almost all the discussion centred on the role of patents in science. While it is clear there are some very significant issues here, especially in the context of what constitutes sufficient novelty to justify a patent, and in the process of granting patents, I don’t think patents are the biggest issue concerning intellectual property is science. In fact, patents are arguably one of the least insidious aspect of intellectual property law, at least when one considers the small proportion of scientific intellectual innovation that they cover. Patents are short (typically 20 years), and at least in theory, must make claims defining the invention that are new, non-obvious, and useful or industrially applicable. To this end they cover a tiny fraction of the total scientific output. Crucially patents are usually only claimed when there is the hope of financial remuneration required to recouping the cost of making a successful claim. In contrast copyright (the right to control copies of an expression of an idea) indiscriminately covers virtually every recorded expression of scientific discourse. Copyright terms are long (typically the life of the author plus either 50 or 70 years); blanket all content, often regardless of the authors intensions or the mode of expression, and are inordinately complex to the point that the rights to the majority of content are utterly untraceable.
Copyright not only stifles access to knowledge and the free exchange of ideas, the transmission of which is essential to science, but also fundamentally alters the science we do. This is for two reasons. Firstly expressions of scholarly discourse (e.g. journal articles) mostly sit behind firewalls that prevent a majority from accessing this information. Failure to access this knowledge leads others to be inefficient, either because they are repeating work that has already been done, or more likely because their ignorance of prior work leads to an incorrect conclusion. Secondly, scholars live in fear of breaching copyright and are therefore paralysed into inaction when disseminating expressions of work. This operates at an individual level (e.g. scholars confused about whether they can electronically disseminate their own work to other colleagues) and at a higher organisational level. For example, efforts to mass digitise and distribute scholarly works, the rights holders of which are for the most part utterly untraceable, without an effort many orders of magnitude greater than cost of digitising the works in the first place.
Here are a few of my personal observations from the meeting, most of which reiterate points made by Charles Leadbeater: