On the complexities of sharing scientific data
July 16th, 2008 by dwentworth
Ethan Zuckerman, the Berkman fellow who founded Geekcorps and co-leads Global Voices with Rebecca MacKinnon, has a nice piece today on our efforts to clear the legal hurdles blocking the integration of scientific databases, highlighting research by Melanie Dulong de Rosnay (see our post from earlier this week).
Writes Zuckerman at World Changing:
Creative Commons is a clever use of the copyright system intended to make it easier for people who want to, to share their work with others. Jonathan Coulton has used Creative Commons to enable an army of remixers and videomakers to produce promotional materials for his songs and albums. Authors like Dan Gillmor and Cory Doctorow have used Creative Commons to let people download, translate and make audio versions of their books. And Global Voices uses Creative Commons so that blogs and news sites can use our content without asking us for permission.
What about scientists?
Under US law, pretty much anything you write down is copyrighted. Scrawl an original note on a napkin and it’s protected until 70 years after your death. Facts, however, are another matter – they can’t be copyrighted. So while trivial but creative scribblings are copyrighted, unless you choose to release them into the public domain, the information painstakingly discovered about the human genome – DNA sequences, for instance – aren’t. But the containers they’re stored in – the databases they’re held in – can be copyrighted.
If I sound confused about this stuff, that’s because I am.
The reason this is important, Melanie explains, is that scientific research proceeds more quickly when researchers can share resources. But with databases encumbered by different, confusing legal protections, it can become a legal nightmare for researchers to do complex work building new tools that combine information from two databases in a novel way, for instance. And databases that are protected by access restrictions can be out of reach to scientists in developing nations who might not have the financial or technical resources to access them.
As Zuckerman points out, we initially offered advice aimed at helping database publishers figure out when it made sense to use Creative Commons licenses. But it was evident that this wouldn’t solve the problem.
After further research, Science Commons collaboratively developed and published the Protocol for Implementing Open Access Data, through which we recommend explicitly returning the data to the public domain, using legal tools like the CC0 waiver or the Open Data Commons Public Domain Dedication and License (ODC-PDDL).