March 3, 2009  ·  Lessig

The Huffington Post is running a piece about H.R. 801 (the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act“), the latest version of John Conyers’ awful idea. The law would forbid entities like the NIH from requiring that recipients of government grants make the product of their research openly accessible. (The current practice requires articles be freely accessible after 12 months.) Instead, Conyers’ proposal would require that after the American taxpayer has paid for the research, the American taxpayer must pay publishers to get access to the product of the research.

The first important word to emphasize in the last sentence is “publishers.” For unlike the ordinary market for creative work, here, the author isn’t paid for his work through the copyright system. It is the government (indirectly) paying for the research that the author (a scientist) creates. Scientists write articles as part of their job; other scientists peer-review those articles (usually for free); and journals then publish those articles without paying the author anything. Those journals, however, then charge libraries across the world an increasingly high rate to get access to the research in those journals. As the industry has become more concentrated, those rates have skyrocketed — rising much faster than inflation.

The “open access movement” was born to create an alternative to this. Even if restrictive copyright was a necessary evil in the days of dead-tree-based publishing, it was still an evil. High costs restrict access. The business model of the scientist is to spread his or her knowledge as widely as possible. Open access journals, such as, for example, those created by the Public Library of Science, have adopted a different publishing model, to guarantee that all all research is freely accessible online (under the freest Creative Commons license) immediately, to anyone around the world. This guarantee of access, however, is not purchased by any compromise in academic standards. There is still a peer-review process. There is still even a paper-based publication.

Pushed by scientists everywhere, the NIH and other government agencies were increasingly exploring this obviously better model for spreading knowledge. Proprietary publishers, however, didn’t like it. And so rather than competing in the traditional way, they’ve adopted the increasingly Washington way of competition — they’ve gone to Congress to get a law to ban the business model they don’t like. If H.R. 801 is passed, the government can’t even experiment with supporting publishing models that assure that the people who have paid for the research can actually access it. Instead, if Conyers has his way, we’ll pay for the research twice.

The insanity in this proposal is brilliantly described by Jamie Boyle in this piece in the FT. But after you read his peace, you’ll be even more puzzled by this. For what possible reason could Conyers have for supporting a bill that 33 Nobel Prize Winners, and the current and former heads of the NIH say will actually hurt scientific research in America? More pointedly, what possible reason would a man from a district that insists on the government “Buying American” have for supporting a bill that basically subsidizes foreign publishers (for the biggest players in this publishing market are non-American firms, making HR 801 a kind of “Foreign Publishers Protection Act”)?

Well no one can know what goes on the heart or mind of Congressman Conyers. But what we do know is what MAPLight.org published yesterday: That the co-sponsors of this bill who sit on the Judiciary Committee received on average two-times the amount of money from publishing interests as those who haven’t co-sponsored the bill.

Now maybe that’s just a coincidence. Maybe Conyers and his friends had a reason of principle to support a bill said by experts to “harm science in America.” But if he did, then he more than anyone else should want a system for funding elections that makes it impossible for people like me to suggest that maybe it wasn’t reason that led him to his silly support for such a stupid bill.

Yet another reason to support citizen funded elections. Yet another reason to join the strike (“strike4change.com“) Change Congress has launched. Promise not to give money to any candidate who doesn’t support irrevocably citizen funded election. (Come on. You don’t want to give anyway.)

At the very minimum, ask Congressman Conyers to explain exactly why — if it wasn’t the money — he’s so keen to hurt science.