Science in Society Archive

Copyright on Information

Prof. Peter Saunders

The increasing use of digitally held data is changing publishing and raising new problems about copyright. Electronic journals and databases do not incur the costs of printing, packaging and mailing, but they still cost money to produce and maintain. The challenge is to develop a system of paying these costs which provides sufficient and incentive for the providers without being onerous for the users. This is particularly an issue in science because the users, the scientific community, are generally also the ultimate providers of the information. Very few of the originators of the material receive any payment at all, whatever the copyright warning on your photocopier may say.

The European Union has already taken significant steps to deal with this problem, though you may not be aware of them as they don't seem to have attracted much attention outside the world of publishing. The 1996 Database Directive created a new kind of intellectual property right in collections of data which would not otherwise be subject to copyright, and it did so without making provision for 'fair use' in research. Unlike other forms of copyright, this can be renewed indefinitely, because it dates from the last time the database was reformatted.

On 21 May, 1999, the European Commission put forward an amended proposal for a new Directive on copyright and related rights in the Information Society. As formulated at present, it includes even transient copies that are generated as part of the usual process of electronic transmission, and while it is hoped that this feature will be dropped, the proposal still appears to be in conflict with many of the principles underlying the Bern convention.

We haven't heard of any discussion about these issues within the scientific community, and yet we could all be very much affected by the outcome. If there is insufficient incentive to providers, they will not develop and operate databases that take full advantage of the new technology. On the other hand, if they are allowed too much profit and control, the result will be to raise the costs of teaching and research and impede the very exchange of scientific information which the system is supposed to make easier.

The publishers have naturally been active in making their views known to the Commission, as they are right to do. It's not easy to strike a fair balance between the rights of the providers and those of the users, but it certainly isn't going to come about if only one side is putting its case. Unfortunately, this is all too likely to happen in Brussels, because while the information is public, it doesn't receive the same publicity as what happens in individual countries. Also, scientific publishing in the EU is largely concentrated in the hands of a very few large publishers, whereas the scientists are represented by a large number of societies divided both by discipline and by country. There doesn't seem to be any organisation whose task it is to ensure that the views of the European scientific community as a whole are adequately represented in Brussels, whether on this issue or on others.

A proposed change in copyright regulations may seem a dry topic, but it could have serious consequences for many scientists, especially those who routinely rely on data bases in their research. You can find the full text of the Amended Proposal on the web at

You'd be wise to have a careful look at what is being proposed, and to recommend that the learned society or institution you belong to does the same. We should all be following developments in Brussels more closely. EU directives can pass through almost unnoticed by the public and by national politicians, but they have far-reaching effects.

Professor Peter Saunders, Department of Mathematics, King's College, Strand, London WC2R 2LS. (Tel. 0171-873-2218; e-mail:

Article first published 26/07/00

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