Monday, January 09, 2012

Professor Robin Feldman Co-Authors New England Journal of Medicine “Perspective” on Copyright Law & Medical Care

When Professor Robin Feldman and co-author Dr. John Newman published a “Perspective” on copyright issues in the medical field in the Dec. 29 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, they may not have known how rapidly an ensuing dialogue would spread.

Within the first two days after “Copyright and Open Access at the Bedside” came out, over a dozen blogs had picked up the story. These included Ezra Klein’s WonkBlog in The Washington Post; Dorothy Bishop’s BishopBlog at University of Oxford; and GeriPal, run by Newman’s fellowship director, Eric Widera. It was also cited in the Wall Street Journal’s OneSpot and by Ben Kerschberg in Forbes.com’s MuckRack.

“For a long time, doctors have been able to ignore copyright, but that is changing in a dramatic way,” said Newman, a physician who practices both at the University of California, San Francisco and the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

“The exercise of copyright is creating a threat to basic medical care,” said Feldman, a legal scholar and Director of the LAB Project at UC Hastings. She and Newman asserted that enforcing copyright law could potentially interfere with patient care, stifle innovation and discourage research.

The incident that prompted Newman and Feldman’s analysis was the removal from the Internet of the Sweet 16, a freely available clinical assessment tool used by physicians to screen patients for cognitive problems. The tool was taken down because of legal action by the creators of a similar tool called the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE).

The resulting flurry of legal actions would affect not only patient care, but impede the improvement of clinical tools, Feldman said. “Traditionally, in medicine, tests were created, people shared their work, and those who improved the work shared their improvements. No one expected fences to be erected around these works, and then a toll charged to cross the fence.”

To prevent such a scenario, Newman and Feldman recommend that the creators of new and existing clinical tools place their works under open source copyright, known colloquially as “copyleft.”

Under open source copyright, explained Feldman, “the author retains all rights to the work, as in traditional copyright, but grants everyone else the right to freely use, modify, copy, and distribute that work, as long as they do so under the same open terms.”


SFVAMC has the largest medical research program in the national VA system, with more than 200 research scientists, all of whom are faculty members at UCSF.

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.

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