Friday, September 21, 2012

Still Waiting on Obama

Does the Obama Administration believe in the power of the Internet to maximize the value of public investments in scientific research? We will soon find out. Each year, the government spends about $60 billion on basic scientific research. About half of this money goes to the National Institutes of Health, which has an Internet-friendly Public Access Policy that requires all grantees to provide a copy of journal articles and other published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted online within one year after publication. This policy has bipartisan support and has been an unqualified success. So, why not require the other agencies that fund basic research, like the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy, to do the same?
The White House is in the process of deciding how to answer this question. Specifically, the Office of Science and Technology Policy asked for public comment on the issue of open access to science journal articles and scientific research data arising from all federally-funded research - twice. The responses to the White House inquiries show that posting scientific research online benefits multiple audiences: (1) researchers working from home or from a place where they do not have access to institutional subscriptions; (2) entrepreneurs who lack the funds to purchase expensive journal subscriptions; (3) students whose schools cannot afford subscriptions to all the relevant journals; (4) patients and their families who want to read the medical research for themselves; and (5) text mining software that can aid all of the above in interpreting the journal literature to make decisions about new research paths and to make new discoveries about patterns and associations that a human reader alone would never see.
The President has the authority to require that researchers who receive federal grants must agree to provide public access on the Internet to copies of research articles arising from this federal support. Such a policy is fully consistent with copyright law because authors of these articles make a choice to allow their articles to be posted online in exchange for the federal funding that allows them to do the research and write these articles. The Administration has delayed in exercising this authority because a group of journal publishers oppose the principle of taxpayer access to taxpayer-funded research even when the evidence is clear that the NIH policy does not impact their subscription revenues.
Frustrated by this delay, three open access allies, Heather Joseph, John Wilbanks, and Mike Rossner, and I lodged a petition on the White House's "We the People" website. The petition asks the Administration to extend the NIH Public Access Policy to all federal agencies that fund scientific research. If a petition gets 25,000 signatures within 30 days, the Administration will issue an official response. We posted our petition on Sunday, May 20th, and started a web site,, to explain why. Researchers, students, librarians, innovators, patients' advocacy organizations, and Internet supporters of all kinds have risen up to meet the challenge, and the petition passed the 25,000 mark in just two weeks on Sunday (June 3, 2012).
Now that the Administration has to respond at least to the petition, will it side with the public or with the group of publishers who actively resist the idea that publicly funded research should be available on the public Internet?
Michael Carroll is a Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, Heather Joseph is the Executive Director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, John Wilbanks is a Senior Fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and runs the Consent to Research Project, and Mike Rossner is the Executive Director of the Rockefeller University Press, which publishes three influential journals in the life sciences that make their content freely available online six months after publication.

On Information Justice (Book Review)

This is a cross-post of my response to Madhavi Sunder's book From Goods to a Good Life in a blogging symposium over at Concurring Opinions.

Like the other commenters on From Goods to a Good Life, I also enjoyed the book and applaud Professor Sunder's initiative in engaging more explicitly in the values conversation than has been conventionally done in IP scholarship. I also agree with most of what the other commenters have said.  I want to offer plaudits, a few challenges, and some suggestions about future directions for this conversation.

Plaudits.  In the spirit of showing-not-telling, Professor Sunder's concrete examples of borrowing practices across the world and in different creative and innovative sectors give force to the argument that all culture is participatory and that the real question is who is allowed to participate and under what terms. I particularly enjoyed the fan fiction chapter (and the article upon which it is based), the Hollywood/Bollywood chapter, and the engagement with the thorny topic of "traditional knowledge".  On this last, like others, I'm less sanguine about the prospects for greater propertization than is Professor Sunder, but certainly there are ways in which the poor might more effectively use the existing legal structure to exercise greater control.

I also think that building out the case for cultural participation as self-actualization (at both the individual and community levels) is nicely done.  To the extent that this book is a response to selected scholarship and the work of certain public intellectuals, Professor Sunder rightly critiques unstated assumptions upon which traditional law-and-economics work is built, while also critiquing the romance of the public domain.

I did not read Professor Sunder to be making an argument for specific law reform - although some options are mentioned - rather than to advocate for a vision of the good.  I took this to be a political argument about why and how the cultures, contributions, and productive capacity of marginalized populations deserve greater recognition in society, first, and in law to the extent that this is not already done.

Challenges. On this last point, I would like to understand better the relation between Professor Sunder's cultural critique and her legal critique. Somewhat like a cultural fitness instructor, Professor Sunder urges us to get off the couch, flex our creative muscles and ensure that everyone in society is equipped with a cultural gym pass and the time and support to put it to use.  But, time and attention are limited resources.  When living the good life, what is the right mix of "writing" and "reading" culture?  Can we have both a participatory and a popular culture?  Writing in a moment when so much time and attention around the world is devoted to corporate-produced mass culture, I understand why Professor Sunder focuses her energy on the case for participation. "[T]he end is participation in meaning-making and in having the capacity to earn a livelihood to achieve the life one scripts for herself." [100] But, there are trade-offs.  A shared experience as audience plays an important role in promoting cultural cohesion.  I would like to know whether there could be a point of too much participation within Professor Sunder's conception of the good life.

This book is directed at the law-in-selected-scholarship, and, very generally, at the law on the books, rather than at the law in action.  Fair enough.  But, the version of efficiency from the scholarship that Professor Sunder targets is assuredly an artificial one that emerged when Professor Landes and Judge Posner made their move from welfare to wealth as the unit of measure.  They, and their followers, made this move without taking any meaningful account of the gap between the willingness-to-pay and ability-to-pay, the distortions caused by money's declining marginal value, the incommensurability problem, and the gap between partial and general equilibria, among other shortcomings.

Moreover, as I and others have written at greater length elsewhere, even when one accepts this version of efficiency, its internal logic, if fully explicated, would likely lead the law on the books to align more closely with that suggested by Professor Sunder's approach than is readily appreciated.  The first order question is why promote progress, and how does one define it?  Second is whether intellectual property law or a direct investment policy would better achieve efficiency, however measured. The law and economics literature lacks a general framework for arriving at the most efficient choices among these approaches.  This point gets a brief mention in the discussion of prizes in the last chapter, but I would have thought it to be more central to Professor Sunder's thesis. Third, even to the extent that creating and enforcing intellectual property rights is justified on efficiency grounds, the subject matter, scope, and duration of these should vary sufficiently to leave more room than existing law does for participatory culture.

Finally, I was expecting a more explicit human rights turn or at least more thoroughgoing engagement with the body of international human rights law in which Professor Sunder's thesis sounds.  She does acknowledge the link at pp. 90, 92-93, and 101, but I would have been particularly interested to understand how Professor Sunder would resolve the conflict between the moral rights justification for authors' rights and her argument for a fair and participatory culture.  Human flourishing cuts both ways.  Your right to preserve the integrity of your work on personhood grounds limits my ability to participate in culture by mashing it up.

Future Directions. My sense is that those interested in efficiency as measured by welfare and those approaching intellectual property from Professor Sunder's approach might well come to incompletely theorized agreement about the proper delineation of most rights.  The values conversation may provoke greater disagreement about what other policies might be desirable to support broader cultural participation.  Moreover, the values conversation is directly relevant to how one conceives of, and chooses to pursue, the good life within the legal framework.  I would submit that this conversation should lead toward a working theory of information justice, which would certainly draw from more general theories of justice, including those upon which Professor Sunder relies.  On this point, I would put in a plug for Peter Drahos' elegant and, at the moment, ridiculously scarce A Philosophy of Intellectual Property, which lays a rich intellectual foundation upon which this conversation could fruitfully build.  That said, thank you, Professor Sunder, for a good read and much food for thought.