Score one for the open-access movement: The U.K. government  has decided to make the country's copyright laws more compatible with research practices in the internet age—bringing them "into line with reality," as business secretary Vince Cable put it in a speech this morning..
Today's announcement follows recommendations made earlier this year by an outside panel headed by Ian Hargreaves, an economist at Cardiff University. The report  recommended that a specific exception be made for text and data-mining from literature for research purposes.
Research Councils U.K. and other funding organizations are thrilled. "The rich data sets and their explanations in the scientific literature that are produced by researchers hold a tremendous intellectual value," Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council director Douglas Kell said in a prepared statement . "Many of them have also been paid for from the public purse."
Current U.K. copyright laws, which were last updated in 1988, require researchers who want to digitize articles in order to mine the text for relevant terms, or to use in any other way, to first obtain permission from the copyright holder. Often that's not possible: For many older articles, it's unclear who even holds the rights, much less whether the author is still alive and the journal still exists. One of the most telling examples given in the Hargreaves Report is the inaccessibility of about 1000 journal articles, all published prior to 1950, detailing experiments on a group of syphilis patients who were intentionally infected with malaria. The report notes that this highly effective treatment, while no longer ethically acceptable, still holds "a wealth of knowledge relating to the biology of the disease."
According to a soon to be published study from the Accessible Registries of Rights Information and Orphan Works project being conducting in the European Union, 31% of books published between 1870 and 2010 fall into the orphan work category, says Ben White, the head of Intellectual Property at the British Library. Only 21% of these published works are available commercially.
Even if copyright information is available for a given paper, says White, it may take 6 months to negotiate a license. And if a researcher wants to mine thousands of articles for certain terms, all of those licenses must be compatible. White says an exception for researchers that "cannot be trumped by contract law is going to be extremely enabling of technology and scientific research, and make the U.K. an extremely attractive place to perform research."