Paying for Internet content once is not enough

Rep. John Conyers demonstrates misunderstanding of copyright law, what’s best for country

What is it about being in government that makes people think we should pay multiple times for the same thing?

What is it about being in government that makes people think we should pay multiple times for the same thing?

I'm not talking about paying many times what something is worth, but rather paying for something once just to be told that you need to pay again before you can use it. U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) is the latest purveyor of this concept, trying to require us to pay for results of research projects that we paid to run in the first place.

Conyers, along with a few friends, have reintroduced a bill he tried to get passed last year — The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) requires researchers to make papers that result from government grants and which are published in scholarly journals publicly available within a year of being published. This is so people who paid for the research — you and me — can read the results of our investment without having to pay for access to a journal. Conyer's bill would make this requirement illegal. He wants us to pay both for the research and then pay again for the results.

This is far from the first time that some Congress critter wanted the public to pay tribute in order to get something they had already paid for. One previous example was Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-Pa.) attempt to have us all pay twice for weather information (see “Forecasts for double or nothing”). The problem is not just in Congress — other government groups have the same idea (see “Is ignorance of the law a design goal?”).

In most cases this desire for double billing comes from one or more companies that would collect the money from the second bill. In this case the companies are the ones that publish the scholarly journals. They are not content to just get the results of government-funded research for free — they also want to keep us from getting the same deal by charging us for what they got free.

The publishers have put forward a legal smokescreen claiming that their rights are being violated. The smokescreen is exposed as false by a number of commentators, including 46 law professors who wrote Conyers about the bill.

Conyers seems to have bought into the smokescreen, or at least he seems to be parroting the publishers' story. He has ignored the professors and is also ignoring the comments of 33 Nobel Prize winners who wrote him to say that the bill would hurt U.S. research.

I thought that the term "representative" referred to the concept of representing the people of your district, or at least the people in your district who voted for you. The people in his district helped pay for medical research and Conyers is trying to make it so they cannot see the results unless they pay more. I find it very hard to see how Conyers' actions can fit into my understanding of what the job of a representative is. I wonder who Conyers is representing if it's not the people of his district.

Disclaimer: Harvard provides guidance on the NIH policy and has similar rules in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Law School. But I've not seen any university position on who Conyers might be representing, so the above question is my own.

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