For the moment, SOPA (HR 3261: Stop Online Piracy Act) is on hold in the wake of a remarkable response from the blogosphere, organizations, and private citizens. The bill is dense, opaque, overreaching, and probably unenforceable. It manages to put a crimp on civil liberties and fail to actually help copyright holders who really do face problems with infringement. The timing of all this is worth examination as SOPA (and its counterpart in the Senate, PIPA) attracted well deserved attention, another retrograde bill, the Research Works Act (RWA), was quietly put forth last month.
RWA (H.R. 3699) was introduced in December as yet another attempt at copyright legislation in the model of the earlier, failed Fair Copyright in Research Works Act (H.R. 801 introduced in 2008). Like its predecessor, RWA would require publishers to give permission for any use of privately published research—even where the taxpayers fund the research. It would prevent federal agencies from participating in open access efforts to ensure that government funded research is freely available to the public who paid for it. RWA is also a direct attack on another bill favored by scholarly communities, the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA, introduced in 2009). In addition, RWA attacks the now well-established, much-applauded open access policy of the National Institute of Health (introduced in 2005). That policy requires publications resulting from NIH-funded research be deposited in an online repository within twelve months of publication. Access is provided to anyone, anywhere, free—because taxpayers already funded the research. The NIH Public Access Policy ensures broad availability of federally funded research, thus encouraging further research and discovery.
The issue here is that while the work of federal employees is not subject to copyright, the products of federal research may be. So publishers, who ultimately end up holding the copyright reins, are empowered to sell intellectual property back to the very universities that produced it (often with the benefit of taxpayer support). This might have been a reasonable arrangement—and it was for many years—but some high-profile publishers began to raise subscription rates well beyond the ceiling of sustainability for most library budgets. And, regardless of the institutional budget crunch, it’s been the case for a long time that non-university-affiliated businesses and citizens lack access to vital research because of cost.
So what is the connection between SOPA, PIPA, and RWA? Together, these three pieces of legislation could drastically undermine the ecosystem of scholarly communication. RWA endangers the ability of the public to access the research their tax dollars have paid for, while SOPA and PIPA could break the underlying architecture of the Internet, which is now indispensable for disseminating the products of nearly all research activity.
Libraries and those who rely on them face a future in which important resources for the creation of new knowledge and scholarship are increasingly scarce. RWA and its attempts to roll back advances in open access could have a devastating effect on both academe and private industry. To allow academics and entrepreneurs to innovate, the engines of publication, dissemination, and research must continue to function.