Geist calls for ‘open access’ government research

OTTAWA — The Canadian government has been “painfully slow” to adopt and promote  open-access software and research, which facilitate knowledge transfer, an expert in Internet and e-commerce law told an international conference Friday.

“Canada has the potential to show some leadership here,” said Michael Geist, holder of the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa.

“But … at least in the public sector, our government has been painfully slow in adopting any kind of open source software, preferring instead to spend our tax dollars on proprietary software licences,” he told the first general meeting of the Emerging Dynamic Global Economies Network, hosted by the University.

Brazil and other countries lead the way by using open-source software that allows the public to access and distribute technology, Geist said.

Building an open-source network in Canada by requiring open-source software on most civil servants’ desktops would not only help Canada innovate, it could improve security by reducing our reliance on a small number of proprietary software developers, which increase risks and costs, Geist pointed out.

He also put the onus on researchers to adopt Creative Commons licences instead of more restrictive copyright provisions, to ensure their research is readily available around the world.

Despite promises by some federal funding agencies to promote open-access publication, most granting agencies have not yet made it a requirement that the researchers they finance make their results available to the general public in a timely fashion, Geist added in an interview.

“At the moment, we’ve got what strikes me as a ridiculous proposition where we fund the research and then spend thousands of dollars to purchase that research within our own institutions, and the public isn’t even granted broad access to it.”

He called for an open-source repository where researchers, after publishing their work in peer-reviewed journals, would make it publicly accessible.

As part of its broader accountability agenda, the Conservative government should also eliminate the outdated Crown copyright provisions that stipulate that all public work belongs to the Crown and taxpayers must seek permission to access it, Geist said.

“There’s something fundamentally wrong about that,” he said.

During a general panel discussion at the conference, intellectual property rights experts from Brazil, Australia and Hong Kong also discussed the need for a balance between protecting intellectual property and fostering innovation and knowledge transfer. Many decried the trend of emerging economies to adopt the U.S. model of intellectual property protection, which many view as unduly restrictive.

Policymakers in China, for example, may not have all the essential raw knowledge they need before they base their legislation on U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, said Hong Xue, an assistant professor of law at the University of Hong Kong.

“There is some flexibility and exceptions embedded in the DMCA. Do the Chinese lawmakers, the decision makers, really understand those flexibility exceptions, alternative arrangements? Probably not,” she told the conference.

Xue also questioned the under-developed role of civil society in affecting China’s developing intellectual property policy, which she said has been closely influenced by training by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative rather than open to broader dialogue with the intellectual property trends in other countries.

Brazil is also adopting a strict patent protection model, said Ronaldo Lemos, director of the Center for Technology and Society at the Fundaçäo Getulio Vargas School of Law in Rio de Janeiro.  

“We are eliminating exceptions and limitations to copyright,” Lemos said.

That’s a problem when a country is trying to stimulate access to knowledge, such as books and teaching materials, he said.

“One of the biggest challenges we have now in Brazil is what to do and how to cope with the vanishing exceptions and limitations to copyright. Because if you want to transfer development, the most important raw material you have is certainly access to information.”

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