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.
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.