American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program


AGI, Scientific Community Express Concern Over Proposed International Database Treaty

November 20, 1996 (Last updated January 2, 1997)

CURRENT STATUS: In November, AGI joined other scientific societies in expressing concern over a draft intellectual property rights treaty that could fundamentally change the accessibility of scientific databases. The treaty was to be finalized at a Geneva conference of the World Intellectual Property Organization (an arm of the United Nations) in early December. As a result of the concerns raised by scientists as well as many developing countries, the database treaty was not brought up for discussion at the conference, and no date was set for future discussions. For further developments on this issue, see the update on database protection on this site.

BACKGROUND: In October, the presidents of the National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine combined forces to write a letter in opposition to a draft treaty on intellectual property rights that could have a chilling effect on scientific databases. The letter is based on an Academy study on the transborder flow of data. This issue is of most immediate concern to astronomers and atmospheric scientists who depend on large international datasets for weather and climate predictions, but it will also affect solid-Earth databases such as the global seismic network. Because AGI is heavily involved in databases itself, this issue could have a major effect on this organization itself.

As a result, AGI joined other scientific organizations in urging that consideration of the treaty be delayed until the implications could be fully examined and concerns fully aired. The treaty could be ratified as early as December at a meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a branch of the United Nations, so time is of the essence is conveying our community's concern to the Clinton Administration.

The purpose of the treaty is noble enough -- to fight international piracy of copyrighted material that is costing the U.S. entertainment industry and other information-intensive sectors huge sums of money each year. In targeting that problem, however, the draft treaty would protect virtually all compilations of data from copy or reuse with no provision for "fair use." Part of the reason for the lack of fair-use exemptions for scientific data is that European countries want to see their weather services become financially self-supporting and have successfully obtained legal protection for weather databases through the European Union -- this draft treaty would extend such controls globally. The fair use concept lies at the heart of the full and open exchange of data upon which scientists rely. At a time when scientists are praising the increased globalization of research, this treaty could have a highly deleterious effect on the data-sharing that is the lifeblood of international collaboration.

This issue has been raised at recent meetings of earth and space science societies, the NRC's Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, and NSF's Geoscience Directorate Advisory Committee.

AGI President Ed Roy wrote a letter to Jack Gibbons, the President's Science Advisor and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, expressing concern over the draft treaty and urging that a decision be delayed until after the December negotiations, allowing the science community and other interested parties to fully consider the implications. In expressing concern and calling for a delay, AGI joined the Association of American Universities, the International Council of Scientific Unions, and a number of other scientific societies in addition to the Academy presidents.

Copies of the treaty and related documents are available on the Web.

Letter from AGI President Edward Roy to OSTP Director Jack Gibbons

November 22, 1996

The Honorable John H. Gibbons, Director
Office of Science and Technology Policy
Old Executive Office Building
17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC 20502

Dear Dr. Gibbons:

I am writing to express the concern of the American Geological Institute (AGI) over the Draft Treaty on Intellectual Property in Respect to Databases that is to be considered at the upcoming World Intellectual Property Organization Diplomatic Conference in Geneva this December. At a time of rapid globalization for scientific research, this treaty could have a chilling effect on data-sharing that is at the very heart of international scientific collaboration.

AGI is particularly concerned that the draft treaty would impose excessive burdens on access by researchers and educators to scientific data in electronic databases and reverse this country's traditional "fair use" policy that has encouraged full and open access to scientific data in the public domain. An example of a geoscience issue that depends on international data exchange is the global seismic network, which has greatly improved our understanding of earthquake processes and serves as an important element of international monitoring efforts for the nuclear test ban treaty.

AGI joins other scientific organizations in requesting that decisive action on the treaty be delayed until after the upcoming conference in order to allow for a fuller understanding of the treaty's implications for the scientific community, which is just now becoming aware of the impact that the treaty could have on future research.

The American Geological Institute is a nonprofit federation of 29 geoscientific and professional associations that represent more than 80,000 geologists, geophysicists, and other earth scientists. Founded in 1948, AGI provides information services to geoscientists, serves as a voice of shared interests in our profession, plays a major role in strengthening geoscience education, and strives to increase public awareness of the vital role the geosciences play in mankind's use of resources and interaction with the environment.

Sincerely yours,

Edward C. Roy Jr.

If you have any questions or need additional information on this issue, please contact AGI's Government Affairs Program at (703) 279-2480 or

Last updated January 2, 1997; link added November 8, 1997

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