Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Copyright = Censorship?

Tonight over a nice dinner talking about the future of taxonomy and science communication, Terry Catapano, a librarian and historian at Columbia University brought up the issue of access to information, and how it would always get out. It’s an interesting comparison between copyright of public funded research and censorship in the age of enlightenment and the former USSR.

In the age of enlightenment, the French would bar not only pornographic but other controversial books from being printed and distributed in France. So Holland and Neuchatel in Switzerland became the places where those of such barred authors like Voltaire or Descartes have been printed an then smuggled into France, where they had their impact. Similarly, the former USSR barred books by Solschenytzyn and others which then appeared in the underground Samisdad literature (with heavy penalties for the owner if caught, like those in today’s hunt for copyright infringement), illegally reproduced works distributed from one reader to the next and eventually finding its way to the West, where it got printed.

Today, copyright in our science has exactly the same effect, that is officially you there is a restriction to access by exorbitant prizing by the publishers like Elsevier, and at the same time, authors happily distribute the pdf via email to anybody who wants to have a copy, like the copied books by the Sowjet dissidents. It is an obstruction to the growth of our knowledge. On the one hand this is leading to small cells of like minded well informed people letting many of us in the dark, on the other hand, the history showed, like in the case of USSR, that such oppressive systems will disappear at some point.


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