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An interview with Lawrence Lessig

Greg Ross

Lawrence Lessig has been called a "cultural environmentalist." Before the Supreme Court and in his latest book, Free Culture, the Stanford law professor has argued that increasingly restrictive copyright conventions pose a threat to creativity and discourse in the Internet age.

As chairman of the Creative Commons project (a source of alternative copyright licenses) and a director of Public Library of Science (PLoS, the open-access journal publisher) Lessig has been watching these issues unfold within scientific publishing. American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross asked him for an assessment.

Many scientists support open access in principle, but winning jobs, grants and tenure still requires publication in journals with established reputations.  Can open-access journals like PLoS Biology bootstrap themselves into prominence?

Lawrence LessigClick to Enlarge Image All the data show that open-access journals have higher citation rates than closed-access journals. That is the reason open-access journals will succeed. There may be a "prestige" lag. But the value from open access will erase that quickly. PLoS has from the start published papers of importance—far more than any other start-up journal. Again, a measure of the value of open access.

In September, the National Institutes of Health proposed a new policy requiring all scientists who receive its funding to make their research results available to the public for free.  Critics say the new policy, if adopted, could drive some journals out of business, and that taxpayers will have to pay for a new open-access system.  What's your response?

Taxpayers are paying for the research. The question is how much researchers should have to pay to get access to the results. We believe that the costs of open-access publishing will be far less overall than the existing system. The costs to everyone will thus be less, and the spread of knowledge greater.

Last year Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.) proposed prohibiting copyright protection for research that has been "substantially funded" by the federal government.  How would a copyright-free system protect priority?  That is, how would a scientist show that she was the first person to publish a given result?

I'm not convinced of the benefits of a copyright-free system. But there's no reason that an author's moral right wouldn't travel with the work, regardless of the copyright.

Some worry that proprietary pressures are moving "upstream" to assert ownership of data and research themselves, rather than patents and copyrights on the final research products.  Do you share this concern?

Absolutely. We have expanded intellectual property (IP) restrictions without any evidence of the good they will do, and this religion of expansion will cause substantial harm to research and commerce.

What's the best solution?

The best solution is that we give up religion in the context of IP and rely upon evidence: No new regulation should be adopted unless the proponent can show, with real evidence, that the restriction will do more good than harm.

The Creative Commons (CC) was originally established to address copyright issues in the cultural realm, but you've begun to apply its principles to a "science commons."  What's the latest news there?

We've launched a Science Commons project which initially will address three separate areas: (1) open-access publishing, which is a simple extension of the CC licenses into the scientific realm; (2) patents affecting research, where we will use conservancy devices to reduce patent burdens; (3) data, which we will develop agreements to assure remains free for further researchers to build upon. This will take more time to develop than CC, but ultimately we believe it will be extremely important in removing the unnecessary burdens of IP in this field.

Many of the current questions in intellectual property arise because of the Internet.  With technology evolving so rapidly, is it possible to find lasting solutions?

Copyright is most directly affected, and I continue to believe it is essential to creativity. But we need to rationalize the system in light of digital technologies. That will take some time—and less control by the industries of last century.

What new questions concern you now?  What issues are on your horizon?

There is an urgency to these issues. My concern is that we will not have a chance to demonstrate the alternatives to a system of tighter controls through law and technology before that system gets imposed upon us.


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