Museum collections as intellectual property
jrc at ANBG.GOV.AU
Fri Apr 30 08:19:02 CDT 1993
> From: Barry Roth <barryr at UCMP1.BERKELEY.EDU>
> Does anyone have any experience with the legal aspects of museum
> collections and/or databases as Intellectual Property?
Yes - this is the real nitty gritty stuff. Give us some good reasons
why we should not make our data freely available. Our institution is
sitting on a pile of taxonomic and specimen label data that I would
love to deny some scientist or some dilettante access to. :-)
This is one of the hottest issues in biological and environmental data
bases and information processing at the moment - and until a degree of
resolution on the exchange of data between institutions in the interests
of science and scholarly endeavour is achieved, people are quite right
to question the credibility and relevance of the traditional musem and
> We are accustomed to the free flow of such information in an academic
> context (to some extent, that's what TAXACOM and other biological
> servers are about).
Well, we like to think so, but I submit that we are not at all
accustomed to the free flow of such information. Just try and extract
the electronic version of a printed document from just about anywhere
and you will recieve a quick lesson in the viscosity of pitch! I wish I
had a cent for every buck that had been passed in response to requests
for electronic data.
> Complications arise when this type of information,
> based on institutional collections, becomes part of commercial work-product.
It is always irksome to see someone else take information that you also
have access to, do something you could have done if you thought of it
and had the time, and make some money from it. It is happening to us all
the time - but is it a real problem or just a lost opportunity to make
some money as a by-product of our main endavour? Should I charge a
commercial concern for something that an academic or government agency
can have for nothing? (BTW, at the moment I would try and charge, not
so much because I feel they should pay, but because they might pay).
> The whole field of intellectual property law is evolving rapidly, especial-
> ly with respect to electronic media; systematists and collection managers
> should have their house in order.
But what does 'in order' mean? And is it possible to achieve concensus
between diverse institutions? Between departments? Between individuals
and departments? Hell - I can not even achieve it within a small work
unit of a dozen souls!
> Can any TAXACOM subscriber suggest references, case law, opinions from
> university of museum counsel, or just report personal experiences in this
> area? Thank you.
> Barry Roth
> Museum of Paleontology
> University of California, Berkeley
> barryr at ucmp1.berkeley.edu
Through the magic of gopher, a small institution such as ours (almost 2
orders of magnitude smaller than the great biological collections of
the world) is able to service 10,000 probes for information a month and
deliver > 3,000 results. And people starting to worry - I am not sure
what about yet, but they are worrying. Maybe it is because information
is leaving at a much faster rate than it is coming in and we will soon
have an empty herbarium. Perhaps it is the rate at which things are
happening, perhaps it is the lack of 'control' (not being able to give a
hard time to people you don't approve of, not knowing to what use people
are putting the data). Perhaps it is the threat of a new way of doing
While almost anyone can visit a biological collection, and spend time
transcribing label information (sometimes even assisted by a portable
computer), there is something inherently evil about an internet address
entering your collection at 3 am and ripping out catalogue data at the
rate of 5 kilobytes per second or greater and slinking away in the night
without a trace. The end result is the same but one just takes longer
and has a comforting(?) human presence.
But what I suspect is the real concern is the feeling of loss of some
form of intellectual property. What is the intellectual content of a
specimen catalogue? Is it valid to equate databases of label
information with library catalogues? Is it in the interests of our
profession to restrict or charge for access to these catalogues? And if
these is intellectual property in these catalogues, whose is it? As the
'authors' of millions of field notes, did we automatically give up any
rights to their intellectual content when they were deposited in
institutions? When specimens are exchanged or donated does the
intellectual property move with them?
Too many questions, not enough answers...
Jim Croft [Herbarium CBG] internet: jrc at anbg.gov.au
Australian National Botanic Gardens voice: +61-6-2509 490
GPO Box 1777, Canberra, ACT 2601, AUSTRALIA fax: +61-6-2509 599
____Biodiversity Directorate, Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service____
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