SOPA, the Research Works Act, and Relative Evil

This one is greatly off-topic, but of much relevance to Science in general. Skip if you do not want to read further.

SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, is a bill set before the United States House of Representatives, otherwise called HR 3261. On the Dinosaur Mailing List and Vertebrate Paleontology Mailing List, I recently commented on actions taken by Paleontologist Dr. Mike Taylor (University of Bristol, Bristol, England, United Kingdom) of SV-POW! (see here and here) to oppose another US bill, HR 3699, the Research Works Act, which attempts to overturn the NIH Public Access Policy. That policy, which is part of a broader law, states:

The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.

The Research Works Act, simply, undoes this paragraph. No law would be permitted to allow scientists to freely post their data to a public server called PubMed Central, regardless of how long after the original publication date the material was posted. I approve of the NIH Public Access Policy, when it comes to scientific dissemination, but I also approve of the right of corporate interests to preserve access to profits from their publications, so that Elsevier Inc., a supporter of a predescessor and sponsor of HR 3699. This puts me in the middle of a group of interests: the rights of scientists to be able to share their data, and that of publishers to guarantee profits to acquisition of their products. It’s a fine line, with nuances that pepper the debate. Mike Taylor, for example, has charged Eslevier of incredible profits such that it might seem they make enough money to allow scientists to make their work open access or freely sharable; as a supporter of the Open Access movement, both Mike and I can agree on this as being important for Science as a whole.

However, I cannot support suppression of the interests of the private publishers that authors willingly submit to the rules of. In this debate, I offered several solutions: endorse Open Access publishing, such as PLoS ONE, by preferring to publish there; choosing not to review, submit, or edit for Elsevier, etc.; and not purchasing products of Elsevier or other such “shady” publishers. It really is that simple: in an economic system, when you control access to a product, you can make it as expensive as you want, and it will be purchased at that price. And what a price! Elsevier charges nearly US$40 per one-time article download or 24 hour access from your IP, and upwards of $3000 for the authors to make the paper open access. they level these fees in exchange for making submission and page charges free to authors. In comparison Nature is free to submit to, and costs $6000 to make an article free. While one’s grant money can pay for these fees, it diminishes the money available for further research, and so is generally avoided.

SOPA, however, is different.

This bill, unlike HR 3699, does not seek to overturn a law that tells corporations to make publications they produce freely available if paid for through grant money from the National Institute of Health. Instead, SOPA has much greater support for the purpose of preventing websites to actually function if they share any copyrighted digital objects, including documents. If found, a court order could shut down any website, block other sites from accessing it, block search engines from locating it, and level fines against offenders as well as up to five years prison time. This doesn’t prevent a law from working, it makes sharing of information criminal.

Now, I can say that there is, like the bill Mike Taylor opposes, an ostensibly good thing about it, but it is facile: Sharing illegally copied or downloaded information is piracy, and the internet makes piracy almost impossible to prevent. To solve this, the laws have become heavy handed in order to close down portions of it to counteract such behavior. They only work within the United States, but they can prevent sites from connecting to US-hosted sites from outside. Given the prominence of the US to world-wide digital networking, this has foreseeable impacts. It can, for instance, allow prosecutors to make plausible arguments in a court that any object infringes on a copyright, and this occurs without an appeal in court you can make made from the so-called “victim” of the infringement. It allows the court itself to make the case, and the result is almost always censorship. When a suggestion of an infringement is made, it is up to the offending party (you) to prove you did not violate a copyright. Merely implying a copyright infringement is enough to compel an order to investigate, censor, or shut down an IP.

So if you thought being forced to pay $50 for a pdf is bad, you would NOT be allowed to legally share this pdf if you could not prove you have a legitimate reason to do so. It also impact whistle-blowers, a group whose outspokenness may be required to overturn what is essentially illegal or otherwise unethical actions, because doing so requires them to “share protected information.”

It will affect video and text sharing sites, because they may involve copy-written material in text, images, documents, or trade secrets. It impairs scientists sharing data on protected or otherwise low-key servers or websites, prevents them from trading in information and data digitally when information is “owned” by a producer or company, etc. So this affects you as a scientific community, and even these listservs because we can discuss “copy-written” material including the text of documents. Now, there are aspects of some papers including the fair-use laws, but this is restricted in effect to those who have a reasonable right to acquire this information. As an amateur who is currently not in a geo or bio-oriented curriculum, this would not include me, and I could be reasonably excluded from being granted access to this data on that ground alone, regardless of whatever reason the requested party may have. But this includes any and all other amateurs or interested non-professionals. It could even include the media you correspond with to share your information with for publicity.

If you load a YouTube video with someone holding an iPhone, or some clear logo or object whose brand is notable, you would be in violation of this law. The same is true, in fact, of posting such a video or a still of it on your blog, in your CV, etc..

But that’s not all!

The legislation would attempt to set up methods by which Congress can allow enforcement agencies to trawl internet-connected systems, whether servers or personal computers, looking for objects that match copy written material, as well as tracking the connections of “flagged” IP addresses, in case such objects were found to be traded. This becomes an invasion of personal as well as potentially company privacy, in case the offending IP is registered with a school, as part of a company network system, etc. It doesn’t take too much fear-mongering to know that this may venture close to spying in broader networks, such as your lab’s or school’s servers and all computers connected.

If this doesn’t sound like something you can support, then there are solutions. If you are a US citizen, you may contact your representative or senator and request of them to oppose or remove their support from this legislation.

Mike Taylor made much ado about the money sponsors of the HR 3699 (the Research Works Act) have received from companies like Elsevier, John Wiley & Sons, etc., but dominantly the former. Consider that Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY-14) has received just over $30,000 in connection with the supporters and lobbyists of the bill. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA-7) has received over $600,000, more than 200 times that of Maloney, from interests supporting this bill, while Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) has received over $3million. If the amount of money spent to support interest in this bills is anything to speak of, the value of stopping SOPA would far outstrip the value of stopping the Research Works Act.

The major sponsors of the bill are the entertainment industry, which certainly deserve rights to their works. But the prevalence of shared media promotes individuals communicating ideas and concepts images from films, text from books, and other such things. When you consider the media leverage of the entertainment industry in comparison to the publishing industry, there is a magnitude of difference in favor of the former, implying not only greater power (television, film, newsprint) but effectiveness (private persons affected, not just scientists) by what is essentially a violation of the freedom of communication. In autocratic societies, the usage of American servers, such as the use of Twitter, Facebook and other social networking outlets, was instrumental in the Arab Spring democratic uprisings; suppression of such communication, if used to “infringe” on copyright, could be disastrous when these societies tend to enjoy otherwise total media control. This argument is not about piracy, but about essential human communication. To me, this trumps any and all financial interests. Both actions may be evil, both laws suppress the ability of scientists to communicate freely; but one is clearly more “evil” than the other, and this is SOPA.

I ask you, the paleontological community — especially if you live in the US — to appeal to your representatives and senators to make sure this law is overturned. It is a vital expression of your interest in this community and your ability to share and distribute data than the Research Works Act that stopping SOPA is substantially important.


I would like to note that I do have a stake in this, and not just as a scientist. As an artist, I have been commissioned for illustrations and been requested to allow use of my work, and been paid for it. When this works gets copied by producers seeking to profit on their own, this reduces the potential of money I can gain, as that producer would not come and seek me for this work directly. Despite this, I oppose the SOPA (as well as its related partner bill, PIPA, which would be the act that promoted IP address blocking directly) for purposes of the scope of the work, likened by someone to me as trying to bat a fly (piracy) with a baseball bat. The collateral damage is, in f act, the reason many internet and media-based corporations, including social networking sites and services, oppose them; that is, the “slippery slope” argument comes into play, because, just as the FIFA act allowed the Patriot Act a springboard from which to permit unchecked invasions of the privacy of United States citizens, so too the SOPA and PIPA can permit further, nastier laws to come into existence.

I have made some open statements that certain forms of my work is freely available, licensed though it is under a Creative Commons (which opposes the bills, incidentally) license, meaning that I retain the rights to the work regardless of how you use it. I simply require a request and to be credited with the image’s ownership. But this only holds for the skeletal diagrams I have created. All other works are held under Creative Commons licenses, with the condition that you are not permitted to use them in any way without my permission or compensation to me for its use. But … this is the internet, and thus things tend to flow freely around without much barrier to its dispersal (and is one reason why the “slippery slope” argument holds, for while the internet provides a means of defying the censorship SOPA/PIPA would introduce, it will guarantee further crackdowns and more laws to enforce) and for the most part I have been loathe to follow down usage of my work. The art is there for enjoyment and perusal, not solely for profit; similarly, the technical data is there for learning and expansion of knowledge, and there should be no price tag to that.

I am proud that both of my Oregon Senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley — both Democrats — oppose SOPA and PIPA (although the latter less strongly), while my Representative to US Congress, Earl Blumenauer D-OR-3, will observe the prevalent black out in protest of SOPA/PIPA, which compels understanding that they oppose the bills. Use the resources linked in this paragraph to find your Senators and Representative if you are a US citizen, or otherwise track down the interest groups who support this bill, and compel them to withhold withdraw their support. In honor of the recent holiday, Martin Luther Kind, Jr. Day, let me close with the following quote:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
— MLK, Jr. 1963, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

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3 Responses to SOPA, the Research Works Act, and Relative Evil

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Needless to say, I am in complete agreement. My push on the RWA (which has had much less publicity than SOPA and PIPA) certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t also oppose those bills!

  2. Pingback: Around the Web: Research Works Act & Elsevier boycott [Confessions of a Science Librarian] | iPhone 2 die 4

  3. Pingback: Around the Web: Research Works Act, Elsevier boycott & FRPAA [Confessions of a Science Librarian] | iPhone 2 die 4

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