Saturday, December 04, 2004

What's Ours is Theirs?

A recent post dealt with the Open Access movement in scientific publishing, one aspect of which is intellectual property and who "owns" what. If I work for a company they usually get ownership of what I produce. Since you and I as taxpayers pay for a lot of research, I think we can expect to get something for it, too, and not have to pay for it twice. That is why it was a bit distressing to see the following news item: UMass edges Harvard in research license income in the Boston Business Journal:
The University of Massachusetts reportedly has edged ahead of Harvard University in research licensing income, ranking 14th in the nation, three slots behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and two positions ahead of Harvard.[...]"This is exciting," [said] UMass President Jack Wilson .... "We're second now in New England. We were nowhere. We are one of the fastest-growing programs in intellectual property in the United States."

That's great, and I'm also thrilled for UMass, a state university that needs the extra dough much more than Harvard does. But what's the principle here? I bought it but they own it?

That's why I was glad to see another item, this time in Wired News, that The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is now providing weather data in open access XML format. What this does, effectively, is prevent commercial providers from monopolizing access to weather data by the public. Sites like AccuWeather and The Weather Channel have been taking NOAA data, formatting it in a friendly way and selling it to the public and radio and television stations. I have no problem with that because they are adding value. But before the move to XML the data was only available to the public in theory because it took effort and knowledge to decode and use it.
"There was pressure on the National Weather Service not to make that information available," said Jamais Cascio, a writer for WorldChanging, an online pro-environment publication. But now "anyone with XML skills can build a reader," Cascio said. "It takes a minimal amount of XML knowledge to cobble together a weather program, and that's exciting.
I couldn't agree more. Medical and public health people can discourage the practice of making the public pay twice by refusing to sign copyright assignments to journals (I no longer sign them; they publish my papers anyway) and using Open Access journals. They can also use the new breed of "permission-less" licenses. For more, head over to the Creative Commons site.