There are three bills up for consideration in the US Government which if passed will have a significant negative impact on academic research. These are the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and the Research Works Act (RWA).
SOPA and PIPA will have a negative impact by putting censorship controls into the hands of the entertainment industry, and permitting legal process to affect the underlying architecture of the web. These two acts are also self defeating for scholarly publishing. The RWA act is damaging as it will attempt to limit the ability of researchers to publish in open access journals. The is naked greed on the part of the commercial publishers.
The first two of these have led to a large reaction on the Internet, and this coming Wednesday a large number of popular sites, including wikipedia, will go black in protest. There is even initial evidence that the really bad parts of these bills may be deferred with the White House coming in against them, however the third of these, RWA, is getting much less coverage.
SOPA and PIPA damage the economic interests of a large number of new industries. These industries have financial clout, high profile visibility and a lot of ground level support. There should be significant and effective opposition to SOPA and PIPA. RWA only has an impact on practicing researchers, the terminally ill, the students in developing economies. Where are the obscenely wealthy champions of science and truth? They are a rare breed indeed.
These three bills have been sponsored and heavily bank rolled by industries that are doing everything that they can to retain a hold on outdated business models. Elsevier in particular has bankrolled the RWA act. Rather than playing fair in an open economy they are paying congress to tilt the law in their favour. There is nothing illegal about this so I refrain from using the term bribery, it’s just the way that congress works.
SOPA and PIPA are a call to Silicon Valley to get wise about the process of government but I don’t see any natural champions to fight against the RWA act. The Open Access movement does not have enough big money behind it to pay off enough members of government to get the bill stopped that way, the impact on the browsing public will be too small to cause a huge public intervention on the act. I’m afraid that the outlook for this act is grim.
What are the consequences if the RWA act passes?
My prediction is that this act will have a very negative long term impact on research coming out of North America. With researchers unable to disseminate their research properly, systems of research which allow the flow of information should become more fit more quickly in the information landscape. Countries that have an interest in catching up with the west, and that have less of an historic tie to overly strict interpretation of intellectual property and copyright, might find a great opportunity to definitively take the lead in the research world (go east young man!).
For the rest of us, we have to continue to build our systems in as open a way as we possibly can, and we have to continue to voice our opposition to economically and intellectually harmful legislation.
In the end the damning aspect of all three of these acts is that they promise no economic benefit, in fact, they will actively harm the economies under whose jurisdiction they fall. I would love the hear a defence from the Scholarly Kitchen about the RWA act, because I certainly don’t understand how it could be a good thing at all.
Mendeley will be joining the online protest on the 18th. Jonathan Eisen has called for a scholarly society boycott of the Association of American Publishers.