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PLoS Founders Eisen, Brown: Sabo Bill No Threat to Bioinformatics Software

The proposed Public Access to Science Act, which calls for works resulting from federally funded research to be released without copyright restrictions, has stirred debate in the bioinformatics community [BioInform 08-04-03]. Even researchers who support the intentions of the bill — to ensure that publicly funded research remains in the public domain — have expressed concern that the act, as currently worded, would eliminate copyright for federally funded software as well as the scientific literature.

But according to Michael Eisen, a computational biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and co- founder of open-access publisher Public Library of Science, “it’s unlikely that this particular bill will continue to address software. I think that’s a separate issue. I would suspect that ultimately this bill is going to try not to be in conflict with Bayh-Dole [an act passed in 1980 that gave universities the right to patent and license inventions]. My view is that this is going to have a much narrower, direct attack on the published scientific literature.”

Noting that he “hadn’t really considered the software implications” when he first hear of the bill, Eisen said, “I don’t think it was [Rep Martin Sabo’s (D-MN)] intention in drafting it to have it cover software.”

PLoS supports the bill because it “expresses the public’s interest,” Eisen said. “Whether the ultimate form of the bill changes in order to reflect some of the concerns about software or if people decide that there’s a more effective mechanism for placing these works in the public domain, I don’t know.”

Stanford’s Pat Brown, another PLoS co-founder with strong ties to the bioinformatics community, called the potential threat to software development a “microscopic issue” compared to the benefits of open access to the literature. “My lab develops a lot of software that is very widely distributed, and I don’t think you will find a single person in my group who doesn’t think that the Sabo bill would be a great thing for science,” he said.

Ultimately, Brown said, the bill serves as a stake in the ground for public debate on the issue. “There may be other solutions that would accomplish the same goal, and I would welcome them, but I’d like to see someone make a serious effort to make them happen,” he said.

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