The Digital Technology Boomerang: New Intellectual Property Rights Threaten Global "Open Science"
October 2000 There is a serious threat that ill-considered government support for expanding legal means of controlling access to information for the purpose of extracting private economic rents is resulting in the "over-fencing of the public knowledge commons" in science and engineering. Such a new "tragedy of the commons" would bring adverse long-run consequences for future welfare gains through technological progress, and re-distributional effects further disadvantaging the present economically less advanced countries of the world. Radical legal innovations in intellectual property protection that seriously jeopardize the effective conduct of open, collaborative science have been introduced by the little noticed European Database Directive of March 1996. This initiative forms an emblematic and substantively significant aspect of the broader set of transformations in intellectual property rights institutions that have been initiated in response to the economic ramifications of rapid progress in digital information technologies. The EC Directive poses numerous contentious issues in law and economics that will create ambiguities for business and non-profit activities in this area for years to come. The terms on which those issues are resolved will materially affect the costs and organizational feasibility of scientific projects that are of global reach and importance, especially those that depend heavily upon the collection, management and analysis of large volumes of observational data that cannot be regenerated. This paper sets out the economic case for the effectiveness of open, collaborative research, and the forces behind the recent, countervailing rush to strengthen and expand the scope of intellectual property rights protection. Focusing upon innovations in copyright law and the sui generis protection of hitherto unprotected content, it documents the genesis and analyzes the economic implications of the EC's Database Directive, and related legislative proposals (H.R. 3125, H.R. 354 and H.R. 1858) in the US. Several modest remedial proposals are advanced to mitigate the adverse impact of "the digital technology boomerang" upon open science. Keywords: intellectual property rights, copyright, sui generis protection of expressive material, economics of information-goods, open science, "fair use," scientific databases. JEL Classification: H4, K39, O31, O34
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