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Database laws threaten research

Scientists warn that recently proposed database laws could stifle critical scientific research.

Recently proposed database laws could stifle critical scientific research, such as finding a cure for AIDS or global warming, scientists are warning.

In a report released today, members of the National Research Council warn that proposals to extend copyright protection to databases would throw today's freely available, publicly funded information into private hands. That would, in turn, retard scientists' ability to share information and advance breakthroughs, the report says.

Scientists routinely share publicly funded research that directly affects human progress, the report says. Under database laws already enacted in the European Union and under consideration by the U.S. Congress and the World Intellectual Property organization, that data could become prohibitively expensive.

According to the report, U.S. Landsat satellite photos critical to the study of weather, earthquakes, and the ozone layer, among other things, skyrocketed from $400 each to $4,400 when their exclusive sale was taken over by a private company.

The council says that proposed database laws are so widely defined that nearly anyone could privatize reams of government-sponsored data without regard to the "fair use" clauses that let scientists reuse information without permission today.

Sharing data is fundamental to scientific discovery, said Micah I. Krichevsky, chairman of Bionomics International, a nonprofit foundation involved in helping poorer countries improve healthcare. "Even Newton said that what he had done was made possible because he stood on the shoulders of giants that came before him," he said.

The report recommends that scientists "demand that the [U.S. Congress and the World Intellectual Property Organization] processes now in progress slow to a rational pace and that the deliberations be made more public."

The Clinton administration, through Patents and Technology Office commissioner Bruce Lehman, proposed and strongly supported international database protections. However, facing stiff opposition at the WIPO meeting in March, the administration backed off, advocating more study of the issue.

The report also proposes several other ways to improve sharing of data in the information age, including a dedicated science network akin to Internet 2.