Science and entertainment

At first sight the worlds of science and entertainment seem distant from each other, despite a recent spate of blog posts on NN about music, and a very thoughtful piece from Michael Nestor about the influence of Hollywood on science. The creative industries – music, film, games and various hybrids – seek to enthrall, thrill, scare, charm or move us, though sometimes it may seem they only succeed in keeping us occupied. Science may do all of those things on occasion but its principal aim is to further our understanding of the world and of ourselves, or something worthy like that.
On one level though science and entertainment are linked. Both endeavours express themselves through documents. Films, novels, printed music, sound recordings, journal articles, patents, monographs – all these can be classed simply as documents. They have a title and (usually) named creators, so they can be catalogued, and they contain intellectual property. It may seem trivial to link science and entertainment at this fundamental level but my justification is that they are linked thus in law. Yes, dear reader, I have tricked you into reading a post on copyright.
In copyright law a document containing intellectual property is just that – the subject matter in the document does not affect its copyright protection. There are special provisions for certain kinds of document (e.g. images, musical performances) but fundamentally copyright treats all documents equally (OK so this is a gross oversimplification. Disclaimer – I am not a lawyer so do not rely on this advice!).
Now, the entertainment industry has a lot to gain from strong copyright protection, and they are not shy in pushing for stringer protection. Back in 2003 the Royal Society issued an excellent report Keeping science open . This said:

The entertainment and software industries, with most to lose, have been particularly effective in lobbying nationally and internationally for greater rights to control their content. But scientific libraries have been caught up in their wake.

and again:

The duration of copyright protection is unnecessarily long for scientific information and will interfere with appropriate archiving activities, and we recommend that the learned societies explore options for its reduction.

In 2006 the government-sponsored Gowers Report made a number of sensible suggestions, but many of these have not yet been implemented. In an attempt to hurry things along, last year the British Library (BL) issued a statement Maintaining a balance in the digital age , arguing that

the shift from print to digital publishing is undermining the traditional balance at the heart of copyright in ways that could make it harder for researchers to access and use information.

This BL campaign was supported by RCUK, Wellcome Trust, and many professional library and information bodies.
So, when I saw this press release earlier this week I had some hope that it would address some of the issues of digital information, licensing and copyright raised by the BL and others. The press release was entitled The availability, affordability and protection of content in digital Britain, but on reading more closely I quickly realised it was aimed at entertainment content and made no effort to address the needs of science or research more broadly. It proposes the establishment of a Digital Rights Agency to help sort out “the complexities that keep consumers on the right side of the law, and ensure artists get properly paid”.
Minister Stephen Carter said: “We need to make it easier for consumers to do the right thing. The internet has become an integral part of daily life. You shouldn’t need to be an underwriter to take out an insurance policy, and you shouldn’t need legal training to surf the web…In the new digital age, copyright infringement has become easier and more socially acceptable, so it’s clear we need some form of legislative backstop for the protection of rights as well as new and innovative ways to access legal content.”
This all makes sense, particularly in the context of downloadable music, films, TV and mass-market e-books. I worry though that it may also end up affecting science without ever having taken into consideration the needs of science, and the very different nature of scientific literature and its users.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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7 Responses to Science and entertainment

  1. Stephen Curry says:

    You got me but I stuck with it. I hadn’t really thought of scientific publications being caught up in legislation designed primarily for the entertainment business.
    I guess enforcement of Open Access publishing should take care of the problem of much of the primary literature from now on but there is still the problem of all the stuff published before.
    It irritates me no end that my university, one of the major players in the UK science sector, does not have access to online copies of Nature papers prior to the mid-1990s. This has to be because the subscription is over-priced. For sure there was a one-off cost of scanning all this material and some ongoing charges for maintaining it online but I find it hard to believe that the publishers charges reflect a reasonable margin. If J. Biol. Chem. can do it, why not Nature?
    Gosh, I’m beginning to sound lie Bora!

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Stephen – thanks for reading!
    Yes, Open Access may eventually result in a very different landscape for primary literature.
    Actually I think it is more surprising that JBC and similar learned society journals make their backruns available for free.
    The problem with paying money for online access to backruns that we already hold in print is that it needs new money. Even if priced quite reasonably, we librarians have to ask “should I spend £5000 on a backrun of journal X for 1930-1995 that I know will receive a low level of use and which we already have on our shelves in print, or should I spend that money on subscriptions to some new titles in sexy new topics?”. Online backfiles can be justified at the point you need to build a new library store as you’ve run out of space, but not before.

  3. Scott Keir says:

    Thanks, this is fascinating. I’ve been following the discussion about copyright / IP and the web for a while, but not really in a science context. Thanks for outlining the issues.
    The duration of copyright protection is unnecessarily long for scientific information and will interfere with appropriate archiving activities, and we recommend that the learned societies explore options for its reduction.
    A lot of the discussion on IP around groups like the Open Rights Group has been based on the idea that the music industry etc needs to change its business model to cope with the internet etc, and our copyright laws need to reflect that. eg, if I am permitted to play a long playing record to you in my living room when you pop round for a chat, then I should be permitted to fileshare that record with you while we are chatting with MSN. And if I can lend you my entire CD collection to see if there’s anything you like, then what’s the difference with me ‘lending’ you my MP3 collection? etc
    How much do you think the scientific community needs to change its business model? Or is that the issue – science has moved forward (embraced the web, developed commercial open publishing models etc) and the entertainment industry hasn’t?

  4. Frank Norman says:

    Scott – I think both science and entertainment are having to change their models. Behaviour that has always existed (copying, sharing) has become more threatening to rights-holders because of the rise of digital content.
    While there are interesting parallels between science and entertainment, I think that science’s lofty aspirations make it much more important that this issue is sorted.
    As a music lover, if I am forbidden from sharing an MP3 of a Beethoven string quartet with my sister then that is mildly annoying but nothing more.
    If a researcher is forbidden from sharing scientific information with a collaborator then that could impact on the efficiency of the research process.

  5. Cristian Bodo says:

    Perhaps I’m being hopelessly naive here, but what exactly is the difference between scientific information and any other kind of copyrighted content? Scientific journals make their money by charging the scientific community to get access to their exclusive content, so they’ll be particularly interested in limiting access to that information by alternative means. How does that make them different from a record label that is trying to prevent you from sharing your .mp3 files with your friends?

  6. Frank Norman says:

    Cristian – I think the difference is in the way that each of content is created and used. Entertainment (music, films etc) is produced as part of an industry, and professional entertainers derive their livelihood from income generated by the content. Scientific research content is produced as part of scholarly activity; sharing that content amongst the scholarly community helps to maintain the overall research endeavour.

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