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Researcher posts protected Science Curiosity papers on blog

Posted on behalf of Eliot Barford.

An American scientist and noted blogger has posted copies of newly published papers about NASA’s Curiosity expedition on his personal website, potentially breaking copyright laws.

Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, reproduced the papers — originally published behind a paywall in the journal Science — on his blog yesterday, claiming he was motivated by public interest in the Curiosity project, which is funded by US taxpayers.

Eisen argues that the papers may not be under copyright as most of their authors work for NASA, and are therefore US government employees, who are whose work is not bound by copyright laws. He writes that “in the interests of helping NASA and Science magazine comply with US law, I am making copies of these papers freely available here”.

US law states that work prepared by “an officer or employee of the United States government” is not subject to US copyright, and can be reproduced and distributed. However, whether this restricts Science’s right to enforce a paywall on its published content is not apparent.

Eisen has previously campaigned in support of open access to scientific findings. He co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a non-profit open-access publisher of peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Science does not retain copyright of work it publishes, which remains with authors. Authors are permitted to distribute copies of final versions of articles after they are published by the journal, which also makes all peer-reviewed research content freely available a year after publication.

The papers in question describe findings by Curiosity in Mars’s Gale Crater, including a small proportion of water in a soil sample. For more on the articles, see Nature’s news summary.


  1. Report this comment

    Mike Taylor said:

    “Eisen argues that the papers may not be under copyright as most of their authors work for NASA, and are therefore US government employees, who are not bound by copyright laws.”

    Sorry to be That Guy, but that’s not right at all. US Government employees are of course bound by the same copyright laws as the rest of us — they don’t get a free pass to download Lady Gaga songs from The Pirate Bay. The issue here is that works created by US Government in the course of their duties are not encumbered by copyright.

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    Mike Serfas said:

    As one of the foremost evolutionary and developmental biologists, Michael Eisen merits our respect. As a leading proponent of open science who is correct about the U.S. law, he merits our support. No matter how respectable it is to publish in Science, if it were allowable for NASA employees to hold or sign over copyright to what they write during the course of their duties, any government employee might turn his public duty into private property. As private individuals, the administrators of Obamacare could sell the application forms and instructions as a cable pay-per-view broadcast.

    Any employer, including Nature, expects that when it hires people to write communications on its behalf or to program its website, the resulting work-for-hire will be available for it to use. The employee does not have the power to sign that property away to a third party. In this case, the employer is the people of the United States, but the principle is the same.

    The tragedy is that Science, given a “scoop” on the results of billions of dollars spent for research, has not come up with a way to monetize this as a free product. It is as if Google offered its Chrome browser as a $40 boxed software item instead of running TV ads trying to get people to download it for free. Imagine the opportunities for Science to expand its reach, to get involved in education, to set up Wikis where students could go over the articles line by line in layman’s terms and to outreach to clubs of “junior AAAS members” … salting these services judiciously with targeted ads for telescopes and mineral samples and SAT and MCAT preparation classes. Let’s hope that Michael Eisen will become for the journal what the boll weevil was for Enterprise, Alabama: not a pest, but a catalyst for needed change.

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