Speak now, Mr. Conyers, or withdraw this embarrassment of a bill

Lawrence Lessig and Michael Eisen: John Conyers, It's Time to Speak Up

On the Huffington Post, Mike Eisen and I have asked Mr. Conyers to respond to the calls that he withdraw the embarrassing, anti-open access HR 801 (aka, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act). We’ve gotten tons of responses from people who have followed our request to call Conyers and other co-sponsors to ask about this. I’m grateful for the help to stop this mistake of a bill. I’d be even more grateful if more were to join the strike to change the economy of influence in DC that produces this sort of silliness.

Again: strike4CHANGE.com

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6 Responses to Speak now, Mr. Conyers, or withdraw this embarrassment of a bill

  1. Steve Baba says:

    Rep. John Coyyers spoke:

    A Reply to Larry Lessig

    I acknowledge that these are complex issues and that there are important values, strong arguments, and passionate supporters on both sides. And I look forward to the coming debate. But I hope as the discussion moves forward, we can focus on the merits. No one is well served by ad hominem attacks, baseless smears, or a distorted presentation of the facts.

    Congress is not perfect, and I respect Professor Larry Lessig’s vigorous effort to change and improve it. Furthermore, as readers of the Huffington Post well know, I am firmly committed to tough oversight and great transparency in government, and I don’t mind taking it as well as dishing it out. But Professor Lessig’s recent comments on the the scientific publishing issue and my sponsorship of a bill on the subject simply cross the line. I would hope we could debate these matters, including both the substantive policy issue as well as the process/campaign donation subject, without tossing around unjustified allegations. Just as Congress needs some changing, perhaps our discourse does as well.

    To hear Professor Lessig tell it, I introduced a bill that is utterly without merit and entirely the product of shady special interest dealing. Without any evidence to support his contention (other than my receipt of what can only be described as modest contributions from publishers), he labels my motivations for introducing this bill as “corrupt,” accuses me of “shilling” for “Big Paper,” and dismisses the whole thing as nothing more than a “money for influence scheme.” This even though one of the very columns cited by Professor Lessig reviews the campaign financing at issue and concludes that “the numbers here are not large” and that “I don’t think the numbers in the MAPLight report support Lessig and Eisen’s contention that the bill is a ‘money-for-influence scheme.'”

    Apparently, on the basis of this one piece of legislation he dislikes, Professor Lessig is willing to wave away my forty years of fighting against special interests, including for example my authorship (along with then Senator Barack Obama) of an anti-lobbying law that established reform groups labeled a “landmark” law. I have supported public financing legislation favored by Professor Lessig since it was since it was first proposed.

  2. Chris Patil says:

    Conyers’ response doesn’t argue the merits of his bill at all. He sticks to beating up on the claim that he’s shilling for the publishers.

    This is the reason why I think it’s best for critics of the bill to limit ourselves to discussing its merits (or lack thereof), rather than postulating motives for Conyers in introducing it.

    The Lessig/Eisen Huffington Post article was not very substantial in its treatment the main issue, namely, why this bill is a bad one. (In fact, I think the summary of the bill’s purpose is vague enough to border on the misleading. At best it’s an oversimplification of the type that too often characterizes advocacy writing.) It focused far too much of its energy on the assertion of corruption on the part of Conyers – who ran uncontested in his last election, got 92% of the vote, and arguably doesn’t need the money anyway.

    I say all this as an open access advocate who’s in nearly complete agreement with your overall position on the matter. I say all this as a great admirer of both Mr. Lessig and Professor Eisen.

    That’s why it’s so frustrating to see Conyers able to dance all over a relatively unimportant debater’s point while leaving the main meat of the argument untouched.

    I’d ask both of you to focus your (considerable) rhetorical prowess on educating the readership about the issues underlying the bill, the real importance of Open Access publishing, and the reasons why HR 801 is a bad idea *on the merits*.

    That aside, thank you for your efforts in this cause.

  3. Steve Baba says:

    “Conyers’ response doesn’t argue the merits of his bill at all”

    Perhaps I was not clear that I cut out much of Conyer’s argument. Here is the middle that argues the merits:

    While this approach appears to further and enhance access to scientific works, opponents argue that, in reality, it reverses a long-standing and highly successful copyright policy for federally-funded work and sets a precedent that will have significant negative consequences for scientific research.

    These opponents argue that scientific journals expend their own, non-federal resources to manage the peer review process, where experts review academic publications. This process is critical because it provides the quality check against incorrect, reckless, and fraudulent science and furthers the overall quality and vigor of modern scientific debate. Journal publishers organize and pay for peer review with the proceeds they receive from the sale of subscriptions to their journals, thereby adding considerable value to the original manuscripts of research scientists.

    The policy Professor Lessig supports, they argue, would limit publishers’ ability to charge for subscriptions since the same articles will soon be publicly available for free. If journals begin closing their doors or curtailing peer review, or foist peer review costs on academic authors (who are already pay from their limited budgets printing costs in some cases), the ultimate harm will be to open inquiry and scientific progress may be severe. And the journals most likely to be affected may be non-profit, scientific society based journals

  4. Rick says:

    Conyer’s arrogant defensiveness is a little surprizing, as if Lessig/Eisen simply don’t have the right or the stature to challenge his position. While the publisher’s contributions to his cause certainly would not make or break Conyers, one wonders what his position might be if the contribution was zero. That’s the essence of the issue: not the amount contributed but the doubt that it raises.

    Conyers and the publishers would have us believe that the true value in Newton’s “Principia” lay in the effort of getting it into print with minimal typo’s. Or perhaps they’re suggesting that Apollo 11 would have missed the moon altogether if the typesetter hadn’t bothered to check Newton’s math.

    His understanding of the scientific community and how it works? It’s probably equivalent to Ted Stevens’ comprehension of the Internet. Which reminds me; Conyers has had his own ethics issues to deal with.

    This is nothing more than what we so commonly see: an industry sees changing economics and new technology jeopardizing its future so it seeks to have the government build a wall of security around it. Standard stuff: legislate yourself into guaranteed prosperity. The government (which is us) builds the bridge. They’re delighted to get exclusive rights to the toll booths.

  5. I appreciate Lessig bringing attention to HR 801, and I enjoy reading this blog a great deal. I do agree with some previous commenters that focusing on Conyers’ potential conflict of interest both allowed Conyers to respond to something other than the policy issue and also backed him into a corner, forcing him to fight. That said, this issue of campaign contributions is something that Lessig clearly cares about, so it’s easy to understand how it got included.

    I want to point out one complication in Lessig’s analysis of the publication system. He talks describes the current system as one in which the taxpayers have to pay for their research twice. Lessig points to PLoS as an alternate paradigm. Actually, when something is published in PLoS, the taxpayers pay twice again, since PLoS charges authors a publication fee, which the authors often pay out of their (taxpayer-funded) grants.

    I don’t know which system is more efficient. If I were a conservative, I might believe the for-profit journal manages to be most efficient at keeping costs down. I leave that to somebody else to study. Still, given that taxpayers have to pay the publication costs either way, it does seem like paying on the publication end — not on the reader end — is better.

  6. Steve Baba says:

    ‘That said, this issue of campaign contributions is something that Lessig clearly cares about, so it’s easy to understand how it got included.”

    It’s easy to understand since Lessig is suffering from hubris and thinks he can be both umpire (calling out people for corruption) and rooting for one team (the open, liberal side).

    Or in legal terms if Lessig does not get sports analogies, you can’t be both prosecutor, judge and jury. Pick one

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