Friday, September 09, 2016

Doing science has just gotten even harder

Annotation of licenses of life science
databases in Wikidata.
Those following me on Twitter may have seen the discussion this afternoon. A weird law case went to the European court, which sent our their ruling today. And it's scary, very scary. The details are still unfolding and several media have written about it earlier. It's worth checking out for everyone doing research in Europe, particularly if you are a chem- or bioinformatician. I may be wrong in my interpretation, and hope to be, but hope even more to be proven wrong soon, but fear it will not be soon at all. The initial reporting I saw was in a Dutch news outlet, but I was pointed by Sven Kochmann to this press release from the Court of Justice of the European Union. Worth reading. I will need to write more about this soon, to work out the details why this may turn out disastrous for European research. For now, I will quote this part of the press release:
    Furthermore, when hyperlinks are posted for profit, it may be expected that the person who posted such a link should carryout the checks necessary to ensure that the work concerned is not illegally published.
I stress this is only part of the full ruling, because the verdict is on a combination of arguments. What this argument does, however, is turn around some important principle: you have to proof you are not violating copyright.

Now, realize that in many European Commission funded projects, with multiple partners, sharing IP is non-trivial, ownership even less (just think about why traditional publishers require you to reassign copyright to them! BTW, never do that!), etc, etc. A lot of funding actually goes to small and medium sized companies, who are really not waiting for more complex law, nor more administrative work.

A second realization is that few scientists understand or want to understand copyright law. The result is hundreds of scholarly databases which do not define who owns the data, nor under what conditions you are allowed to reuse it, or share, or reshare, or modify. Yet scientists do. So, not only do these database often not specify the copyright/license/waiver (CLW) information, the certainly don't really tell you how they populated their database. E.g. how much they copied from other websites, under the assumption that knowledge is free. Sadly, database content is not. Often you don't even need wonder about it, as it is evident or even proudly said they used data from another database. Did they ask permission for that? Can you easily look that up? Because you are now only allowed to link to that database until you figured out if they data, because of the above quoted argument. And believe me, that is not cheap.

Combine that, and you have this recipe for disaster.

A community that knows these issues very well, is the open source community. Therefore, you will find a project like Debian to be really picky about licensing: if it is not specified, they won't have it. This is what is going to happen to data too. In fact, this is also basically why eNanoMapper is quite conservative: if it does not get clear CLW information by the rightful owner (people are more relaxed with sharing data from others, than their own data!), it is not going to be included in the output.

IANAL, but I don't have to be to see that this will only complicate matters, and the last thing that will do is help the Open Data efforts of the European Commission.

I have yet to figure out what this means for my Linked Data work. Some databases do great work and have very clear CLW information. Think ChEMBL, WikiPathways, and also Open PHACTS did a wonderful job in tracking and propagating this CLW information. On the other hand, Andra Waagmeester did an analysis of database license information of life sciences databases and note the number of 'free content' and 'proprietary' databases (top right figure), which are the two categories of databases where the CLW info is not really clear. How large the problem is with illegal content in those databases (e.g. text mined from literature, screenscraped from another database), who knows, but I can tell you this is not insignificant, unless you think it's 99%.

At the same time, of course, the solution is very simple. Only use and link to websites with clear CLW information and good practices. But that rules out many of the current databases, but also supplementary information, where, even more than in databases, the rules of copyright are ignored by scientists.

And, honestly, I cannot help but wonder what all the publishers will now do with all the articles published in the past 20 years with hyperlinks in them. I hope for them it doesn't link to illegal material. Worse, the above quoted argument will have to make sure, none(!) of those hyperlinks point to material with unclear copyright.

I'll end this post with a related Dutch law (well, at least for the sake of this post). If you buy second hand goods, and the price is less than something like 1/3rd of the new price, you must demand the original receipt of the first buy. Because if not provided, you are legally assumed to realize it is probably stolen. How will that translate to this situation? If the linked scientific database is less then 1/3rd of the cost of the commercial alternative, you may assume it is illegal? Fortunately, this argumentation does not apply.

Problem is, there are enough "smart" people that misuse weird laws and ruling like this to make money. Think of the patent trolls, or about this:
What can possibly go wrong?