another view of copyright in systematics literature: a case of biopiracy?

Donat Agosti agosti at AMNH.ORG
Thu Jan 26 09:40:24 CST 2006

Here a little contribution to the debate about copyright of systematics
literature, as seen in todays issue of Nature:

Biodiversity data are out of local taxonomists' reach

SIR - Exchange of information about biodiversity
is mandated by the legally binding
international Convention on Biological
Diversity, as are monitoring and benefit
sharing. Yet researchers in the developing
world, where most of the biodiversity is
found, are unable to access much of this
information. This impedes the monitoring
of biodiversity: monitoring depends on the
proper identification of species, and this is
hindered by a lack of both specialists and
access to relevant taxonomic information.
The number of online publications with
taxonomic content is increasing, and online
tools are becoming available to mash up
taxonomic with other information, for
example at (see "Mashups mix
data into global service" Nature 439, 6-7;
2006). But copyright and high costs put this
information beyond the reach of many in the
developing world - which is home to more
than 95% of specieswhose descriptions have
been published. More than half the 1,600
descriptions of new ant species published in
the past ten years are copyrighted, for example,
but none are in journals published in the
developing world (see
This seems little better than biopiracy:
taking biodiversity material from the
developing world for profit, without sharing
benefit or providing the people who live there
with access to this crucial information.
A simple solution would be to treat species
descriptions as we do gene sequences, and
have them openly accessible. Open-access
descriptions of new species could then be
a mandatory factor in making them valid
under the various codes of biological
nomenclature. A recent Commentary
by Andrew Polaszek and colleagues
("A universal register for animal names"
Nature 437, 477; 2005) describes how the
International Commission on Zoological
Nomenclature proposes to facilitate this
process for animal descriptions, through a
register called ZooBank. However, present
copyright laws prevent the mandatory
inclusion of what would be an immensely
useful piece of information, the actual
description of the species.
Donat Agosti
American Museum of Natural History, New York,
New York 10024-5192, USA

Dr. Donat Agosti
Research Associate, American Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian

Email: agosti at

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