[Taxacom] RE revisiting patronym auctions

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Fri Aug 15 13:04:37 CDT 2008

Tyler wrote:

>  > If I borrow a book from a public library, for which copyright has
>  > expired, make copies, and sell them, is that fair to the library?
>  > Are you familiar with the concept of "Fair Use"?
>I am familiar with "Fair Use", which applies only to copyrighted
>material. If the book in question is still protected by copyright,
>selling copies would be a copyright violation and the aggrieved party
>would be the copyright holder, not the library. If copyright has
>expired, no-one has any monopoly on the words on the page, so there is
>no violation if I sell copies, regardless of the source.

What is *legal* and what is *ethical* are two different things. 
That's precisely why I chose to phrase my example using a 
copyright-free book. The library has no legal claim to your profits, 
but you're knowingly exploiting the library's resources. It's not 

>One of your main concerns seems to be that the library might respond
>by shutting their doors, and hording their collection, lest anyone
>else profits from it.

Again you misunderstand. A collection's response would not be 
hoarding (where *no one* uses it for research), but only allowing 
in-house research or outside research with explicit profit-sharing 
agreements up front. Either option is a step in the wrong direction, 
but inevitable. What about the case where a country is having their 
species named by foreigners? They, too, would have incentive to 
either restrict taxonomy to in-country taxonomists, or set 
profit-sharing restrictions in place.

>Yikes. Does this mean we need collectors to start signing waivers
>prior to depositing specimens? At some point we need to allow people
>to look after themselves. Otherwise we end up in the ridiculous
>situation where I am allowed to pay $5 for a lamp because I have no
>idea how much it's worth, but the gentleman beside me, who knows how
>much it's worth must pay a thousand times more.

That's not how it would work (that *would* be ridiculous). All that 
needs to happen in such a situation is that the seller makes you sign 
a legally-binding agreement. Word it some way like this: "I, the 
seller, acknowledge that I do not know the actual value of item X, 
and that it is therefore reasonable and acceptable for the buyer to 
profit from the transaction; however, the buyer must also agree not 
to take unfair advantage, here defined as any value in excess of 100 
times the agreed-upon transaction price. In such a case, the buyer 
here agrees to evenly split any amount over this limit with the 

If you, as a buyer, could not live with signing such a statement, 
then you would be free to walk away and buy a lamp elsewhere. The 
gentleman beside you, I'm sure, who KNOWS what teh lamp is worth, 
would *prefer* to make $50K and give nothing to the seller, but I'm 
betting that if his choice is $25K or NOTHING, then he'd choose to 
sign the agreement rather than walk away.

The difference between this scenario and taxonomy is that it's a lot 
easier, in most cases, to find another specimen of a new species 
you'd like to describe than it is to find another Tiffany lamp being 
sold for only $5. Any profit-sharing policy would need to apply to 
every collection in the world in order to prevent folks from just 
shopping around for a sucker who places no restrictions.

>And I maintain that there is no way to make sure
>that the money is equitably distributed to everyone who has some moral
>stake in it.

Why not? See below.

>Acknowledging that we cannot eliminate these problems,
>what's the best system we can develop under the circumstances?

Want my honest opinion? Draft some sort of document with explicit 
guidelines, including a mechanism for profit-sharing, promises that 
the specimens were legally collected, etc., give it whatever title 
you like ("Commitment to Ethical Practice in Taxonomy" or whatever), 
put it online in a *very visible way*, and then let the various 
institutions and researchers from everywhere in the world sign this 
document and have it in the public record. When a potential sponsor 
is considering making a donation in exchange for a patronym, they can 
look at that list of signatories and see whether the 
person/institution they are dealing with has agreed to follow the 
guidelines. Anyone who signs up and then breaks the guidelines gets 
put on the blacklist, which is *also* public. It doesn't require 
lawyers (so it should appeal to Jim Croft), it just utilizes the 
power of public exposure (and possible condemnation). Think of it 
like the Kyoto Protocol. We could do this. We already have at least 
Biopat's example as to a minimal set of guidelines to consider (see 

>Are museums closing because of lack of altruism, or lack of money?
>Altruism alone does not generate money.

I don't know of any taxonomically-signficant collection that 
self-generates all of its own funding. Without altruism, at some 
level, taxonomy would be nearly impossible.

>Again, using my library example, I think it would be more productive
>to view this situation in a different light. "We have lots of
>specimens, and other institutions are profiting from them. We could
>too, if we had a taxonomist on staff who could name them after
>patrons. Therefore, we should hire a new taxonomist. There was a guy
>on taxacom who said he was looking for a job, lets hire him."

There are MANY collections in the world that have no such option 
available to them. I suspect it may actually be the majority, in fact 
(there are a LOT of small collections with no dedicated staff). Your 
"let them hire a taxonomist if they're unhappy" model is effectively 
excluding them from ever sharing in the benefits even when it is 
their material being used. THIS is the crux of the debate for me - 
being fair to all those collections that will NEVER be able to run 
their own auctions. To "emulate the success of our peers" also 
requires that everyone has the same resources. This is not the case.

>This situation already exists though, doesn't it? KEW and the other
>big collections have access to financial support unimaginable to local
>herbaria in the tropics. A researcher at KEW has the support necessary
>to turn specimens into publications, and publications into research
>grants. I imagine this process is much more arduous in poorer
>institutions in poorer countries. From what I understand, though, the
>big guys recognize this is a problem, and programs are being developed
>to transfer training and support from the haves to the have-nots. I
>see this as a very important, but separate issue.

I don't see it as separate at all - in fact, I see it as the heart of 
the matter. If patronym auctions are a golden opportunity, then it 
isn't fair if only the institutions with the resources to actually 
hold the auctions should benefit, if their work is done using 
resources from *other* institutions - or specimens from other 
countries, etc., etc. If we make a public statement as to our 
collective willingness to be fair about things, that can 
simultaneously promote our cause AND help ensure that everyone does 
the right thing.


Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0314        skype: dyanega
phone: (951) 827-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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