Treaty on Database Access Stalled

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Science  20 Dec 1996:
Vol. 274, Issue 5295, pp. 1999
DOI: 10.1126/science.274.5295.1999b

The scientific community's worries about a new international treaty on database rights appear to be over—at least for now. Negotiators in Geneva were to complete work on the agreement this week, but never even began serious talks because they ran into opposition from U.S. scientists and developing nations, and time ran out.

Researchers argued that the proposed treaty, which was drafted by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to protect databases from piracy, would hinder their access to data and increase costs (Science, 15 November, p. 1074). The National Research Council (NRC) and other scientific groups wanted clear exemptions for scientific data in the agreement. “We're heartened to see this outcome,” says NRC staffer Paul Uhlir, who has been following the issue. “There were just too many questions to rush into this.”

The Administration initially favored the WIPO draft, which it claimed would have little effect on scientists. But an outcry from a variety of groups—including scientists—led to a split within the U.S. government. As a result of this opposition and objections from other countries, the negotiations focused only on separate copyright and performing arts treaties and never got to the meat of the database agreement, according to Administration officials. It's not clear when the database talks might resume.

Meanwhile, the White House Office of Science and Technology is smarting over an accusation by the U.S. negotiating team that an OSTP observer at the talks acted improperly. White House sources say that Mike Nelson, OSTP special assistant for information technology, distributed information to other negotiating teams in Geneva that represented the position of the U.S. software company Netscape, which differed from the views of the U.S. government.

While one source characterized the situation as a “misunderstanding,” another official said both Vice President Al Gore and OSTP chief Jack Gibbons “were embarrassed and angered” by the incident. Nelson declined comment.

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