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How to write to your MEPs about European Copyright reform

This was originally posted here.

I mentioned in a previous post how important it is for researchers to equip themselves with knowledge about copyright issues (like this), and to become active in the struggle against publishers in retaining fair re-use rights for research. In the European Commission, this has been quite a high-profile debate this year (see here for example), with some preliminary results being released already.

Recently, Peter Murray-Rust of ContentMine and the University of Cambridge posted an open letter designed to ask that our MEPs become active in copyright reform here in the EU. I used a personalised version of this letter, and the writetothem.org website to send a message to my MEPs from my East Midlands constituency, and present the letter here in full:

Dear Roger Helmer, Glenis Willmott, Emma McClarkin, Andrew Lewer and Margot Parker,

Reform of European Copyright to allow Text and Data Mining (TDM)

I am a PhD student and researcher at Imperial College London and write to urge you to promote the reform of European laws and directives relating to Copyright; and particularly the current restrictions on Text and Data Mining (“ContentMining”). The reforms that MEP Reda promoted to the European Parliament earlier this year [1] are sensible, pragmatic and beneficial and I urge you to represent them to Commissioner Oettinger before he produces the policy document on the Digital Single Market (expected in early December 2015).

Science and medicine publishes over 2 million research papers a year, and billions of Euro’s worth of publicly funded research lie unused since no human can read the vast current literature. That’s an opportunity cost (at worst people die) and potentially a huge new industry. Many of my colleagues have been working for many years to develop the technology and practice of text and data mining (especially in bio- and chemical sciences). This has led to initiatives like ContentMine (http://contentmine.org/) which are making unparalleled leaps forward for researchers. I am convinced that Europe is falling badly behind the U.S. “Fair use” (see the recent “Google” [2] and “Hathi” books case) is now often held to allow the US, but not Europeans (with only “fair dealing” at best), to mine science and publish results.

Over several years, my colleagues have tried to find practical ways forward, but the rightsholders (mainly mega publishers such as Elsevier/RELX, Springer, Wiley, Taylor and Francis, and Nature Publishing Group) have been unwilling to engage. The key issues is “Licences” , where rightsholders require readers to apply for further permissions (and maybe additional payments) just to allow machines to read and process the literature. The EC’s initiative “Licences for Europe” failed in 2013, with institutions such as LIBER, RLUK, and British Library effectively walking out [3]. Nonetheless there has been massive industry lobbying this year to try to convince MEPs , and Commissioners, that Licences are the way forward [4].

The issue is simply encapsulated in my phrase “The Right to Read is the Right to Mine”; if a human has the right to read a document, they should be allowed to use their machines to help them. We have found scientists who have to read 10,000 papers to make useful judgments (for example in systematic reviews of clinical trials, animal testing, and other critical evaluations of the literature. This can take weeks or months of highly skilled scientist’s time, whereas a machine can filter out perhaps 90%, saving thousands of Euros. This type of activity is carried out in many European laboratories, so the total waste is very significant. In my own field of Palaeontology, recent advances in text and data mining have allowed us to automatically reconstruct the entire history of the diversity of life on Earth through an initiative (developed in the U.S) known as PaleoDeepDive [5].

Unfortunately the rightsholders are confusing and frightening the scientific and library community. Two weeks ago a NL statistician [6] was analysing the scientific literature on a large scale to detect important errors in the conclusions reached by statistical methods. After downloading 30,000 papers, the publisher Elsevier demanded that the University (Tilburg) stop him doing his research, and the University complied. Such events are becoming more common anecdotally. This is against natural justice and is also effectively killing innovation – it is often said that Google and other industries could not start in Europe because of restrictive copyright.

In summary, European knowledge workers require the legal assurance that they can mine and republish anything they can read, for commercial as well as non-commercial purposes. This will create a new community and industry of mining which will bring major benefits to Europe (see [7]).

[1] https://juliareda.eu/copyright-evaluation-report-explained/ and https://juliareda.eu/2015/07/eu-parliament-defends-freedom-of-panorama-calls-for-copyright-reform/
[2] http://fortune.com/2015/10/16/google-fair-use/
[3] https://edri.org/failure-of-licenses-for-europe/,
http://ipkitten.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/licences-for-europe-insiders-report.html
[4] The use of “API”s is now being promoted by rightsholders as a solution to the impasse. APIs are irrelevant; it is the additional licences (Terms and Conditions) which are almost invariably added.
[5]
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0113523
[6] “Elsevier stopped me doing my research”
http://onsnetwork.org/chartgerink/2015/11/16/elsevier-stopped-me-doing-my-research/
[7]
http://contentmine.org/2015/11/contentmining-in-the-uk-a-contentmine-perspective/

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Tennant

So thanks to Peter for making this a relatively painless task, and one which could have potentially high impact in return. It’s vital that researchers have their voices heard in these sorts of debate, and I strongly encourage anyone who cares about the future of research to become active in this respect. You can write to MEPs and other policymakers about anything you are interested in: it’s dead easy, and you have nothing to lose!

So far, I’ve only had one response that wasn’t an ‘out of office’ or automatic response, and I copy the full text of the response from Glenis Willmott MEP here below:

Dear Jonathan,

Thank you very much for your email.

I can assure you that Labour MEPs are on the side of research and understand the situation of researchers and our research institutions more generally. The European Commission has promised a wide-ranging and long-term revision of the European copyright framework, and we will be certain to keep the interests of educational establishments at the forefront of these negotiations.

In particular, the issue of licensing solutions as against a general exception for content mining has been one of our main focuses. During the discussions on the Reda Report, the Labour Party proposed an amendment which would have had the effect of extending the scope of exceptions and limitations to new technologies or new uses of existing technology, which would of course take into account new methods of content mining. This was adopted by a large majority in the European Parliament, and we are confident the European Commission, when proposing its copyright reform, will take this into account. A leaked Commission document entitled “Towards a modern, more European copyright framework” suggests a broad exception for “public interest research organisations”, and Labour MEPs will endeavour to tie down this definition and ensure its effective application.

We fully understand the need for legal clarity for consumers and end users, as well as flexibility to ensure that legislation takes account of the pace of technological change.

I hope you have found this information useful. If you have further questions on this, or any other issue, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Best wishes

Glenis Willmott MEP

So that’s that! I hope some of you decide that this sort of thing is worth campaigning for, and consider adding your voice to the discussion.

Jon began university life as a geologist, followed by a treacherous leap into the life sciences. He is now based at Imperial College London, investigating the extinction and biodiversity patterns of Mesozoic tetrapods – anything with four legs or flippers – to discover whether or not there is evidence for a ‘hidden’ mass extinction 145 million years ago. Alongside this, Jon researches the origins and evolution of ‘dwarf’ crocodiles called atoposaurids. Prior to this, there was a brief interlude were Jon was immersed in the world of science policy and communication, which has greatly shaped his view on the broader role that science can play, and in particular, the current ‘open’ debate. He tweets as @Protohedgehog.
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