Anti-Open Access Bill a Real Head-Scratcher

While there is lots of legislation that Public Knowledge disagrees with, we can often see the rationale for it. Not so with H.R. 801, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, now introduced for the second Congress in a row by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI), and co-sponsored by Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Trent Franks (R-AZ), Darryl Issa (R-CA) and Robert Wexler (D-FL). This bill would have the effect of overturning the "open access" to research policy of the National Institutes of Health, which requires that research funded by the agency to be made available for free in an online archive within 12 months of publication. The rationale for this policy is simple - if taxpayers are going to pay for research, taxpayers should get a return on their investment by getting free online access to that research. This is the same rationale driving some of the conditions on the stimulus bills being debated right now - government can, and in this case especially should, put public interest conditions on the money it spends.

So why would Rep. Conyers, considered a champion of the public interest, introduce this bill? News reports indicated that the Chairman was upset because he believed that the House appropriators seized what he believed to be a copyright issue from his Committee.

But open access doesn't require any change to copyright law and it doesn't diminish anybody's copyrights. In the vast majority of cases, a scientist will simply give his or her copyright to a journal publisher. So the scientist loses nothing (and in fact, gains a great deal, not only in financial remuneration, but also in greater public access). The publisher doesn't lose its copyright either, and is unlikely to lose many, if any subscriptions, since journals often contain research that is both government funded and privately funded and add value in ways that a simple open access archive cannot. Indeed, as PK's Open Access Director Peter Suber has documented, proprietary peer-reviewed journals thrive side-by-side with open access archives in a variety of scientific disciplines, including physics.

An example of where "open" and "closed" access to information work side by side is access to legal decisions. Thanks to the hard work of our friend and IP3 award winner Jamie Love, access to most judicial decisions is free in places like Cornell University Law School's Legal Information Institutue. Yet Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw thrive, and at very high prices Why? Because the proprietary services add value to the information with, for example, user-friendly interfaces and a better search engine.

Open access to government supported research is not only the proper response to ensure that taxpayers get a return on their investment, it is consistent with President Obama's vision of greater public access to government information, more government transparency and increased accountability. Chairman Conyers and his House colleagues should not allow a jurisdictional dispute undermine these critical goals.

Read Peter Suber's take on the bill here.

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