CSIRO’s (ab)use of intellectual property

On the envi­ron­ment, one oth­er thing as well — today the Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter will be releas­ing a new report on the impact of cli­mate change on drought. We asked some time ago for the CSIRO and Bureau of Mete­o­rol­o­gy to advise us how do we deal with excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances drought arrange­ments into the future. They’ve now pre­sent­ed us with a report and the find­ings are again very dis­turb­ing. What they say in two short points is this, and this will come out lat­er today – first­ly that when it comes to excep­tion­al or extreme drought, excep­tion­al­ly high tem­per­a­tures, the his­tor­i­cal assump­tion that this occurred once every 20 years has now been revised down to between every one and two years, that’s the first point.

Sec­ond­ly, with excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances drought con­di­tions, under sce­nar­ios with­in it, that that will occur twice as often, and with twice the area of drought­ed parts of Aus­tralia includ­ed. Now this is a seri­ous revi­sion of the impact of cli­mate change on drought and the Agri­cul­tur­al Min­is­ter will make that clear in the report that he releas­es lat­er today, again on cli­mate change.”  extract from: Prime Min­is­ter of Aus­tralia — Inter­view with Bar­rie Cas­sidy, ABC Insid­ers  (empha­sis added)

It would be dif­fi­cult to think of a more author­i­ta­tive state­ment of acute pub­lic inter­est in this issue. When the Prime Min­is­ter uses terms such as ‘very dis­turb­ing’ and ’ seri­ous revi­sion of the impact of cli­mate change’ and talks of the nec­es­sary revi­sion of a pro­gram bud­get­ed this year at about one bil­lion dol­lars, we can con­fi­dent­ly say that this is a mat­ter of the high­est pub­lic inter­est.

In fact, these are the exact­ly the cir­cum­stances in which intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty laws are intend­ed to tilt the bal­ance toward the exten­sion of research and edu­ca­tion in the pub­lic interest.

The pri­ma­ry pur­pose of copy­right is to pro­vide an incen­tive for peo­ple to pro­duce new works for the ben­e­fit of soci­ety as a whole. The incen­tive is cre­at­ed by the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be paid when oth­er peo­ple use and dis­sem­i­nate those works. Copy­right can also reward peo­ple who cre­ate works with­out expect­ing pay­ment, when their works end up being used by others.The gov­ern­ment-appoint­ed com­mit­tee whose report led to the intro­duc­tion of Aus­trali­a’s cur­rent Copy­right Act said:

The pri­ma­ry end of the law on this sub­ject is to give to the author of a cre­ative work his just reward for the ben­e­fit he has bestowed on the com­mu­ni­ty and also to encour­age the mak­ing of fur­ther cre­ative works.

In copy­right law, the objec­tive of encour­ag­ing the cre­ation of new works is bal­anced by the objec­tive of mak­ing mate­r­i­al avail­able for social­ly desir­able pur­pos­es such as research and edu­ca­tion.”  extract from: Copy­right pur­pos­es and sources—Australian Copy­right Coun­cil  (empha­sis added)

Here’s some­thing to be tru­ly dis­turbed by: a pub­licly fund­ed insti­tu­tion, such as CSIRO, ded­i­cat­ed to knowl­edge and tech­nol­o­gy rely­ing on the IP laws to hide from crit­i­cal review of a mat­ter of vital pub­lic inter­est. What pri­vate inter­est (in data pro­tec­tion) can pos­si­bly out­weigh the pub­lic inter­est in this case? Where is the bal­ance that IP laws are sup­posed to protect? 

CSIRO owes us a bet­ter explanation.


  1. I await the out­comes of this issue with great inter­est for 2 rea­sons:
    (1) I have a pro­fes­sion­al inter­est. As a geo­sci­en­tist (ex-Fed­er­al Govt.) — now con­sult­ing, I occa­sion­al­ly need to query State Govt. depart­ments in face-to face dis­cus­sions togeth­er with my clients on the tech­ni­cal bases for some of their qua­si-reg­u­la­to­ry deter­mi­na­tions and posi­tions. I have only rarely heard the argu­ment put that stud­ies or inter­nal opin­ions com­mis­sioned by the agency con­cerned should not be made avail­able on the basis of IP rights. When­ev­er this has been ‘tried on’ for some inter­nal­ly obscure rea­son (career advance­ment ambi­tions being the most typ­i­cal) a lit­tle gen­tle per­sua­sion has usu­al­ly sur­ficed to obtain release.
    (2) I have a per­son­al inter­est. Over 2002 — 2003, with the assis­tance of a retired 30-year APRA bureau­crat hold­ing a law degree, I attempt­ed to get Fed­er­al doc­u­ments out of CASA and Avi­a­tion Aus­tralia in con­nec­tion with the death of my son, a pilot, in an air crash in which I sus­pect­ed sub­stan­dard main­te­nance-relat­ed issues. The air­line had Fed­er­al Govt. air-sea res­cue and mail con­tracts and the CEO of CASA had strong con­nec­tions to the par­ent com­pa­ny. All our attempts were rebuffed using the ‘pri­va­cy argu­ment’ i.e. release would vio­late the pri­va­cy of my deceased son! Approach­es to the AAT were expen­sive and unproductive.

  2. This is absurd. 

    There is no intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for restrict­ing this sort of information. 

    Yes, tech­ni­cal­ly some­one owns and can­not with hold its release. But that would sim­ply mean a Gov­ern­ment is not inter­est­ed in disclosure. 

    Good fight Peter, I am going to keep a close eye on this one. 

    Tim Wil­son
    Direc­tor, IP and Free Trade Unit
    Insti­tute of Pub­lic Affairs

  3. Thank you, Tim.

    CSIRO has now agreed to make the data avail­able after, appar­ent­ly, con­sult­ing with the oth­er gov­ern­ment agen­cies involved.

    I’m very glad to see good sense restored in this case. But a ‘shoot first, think lat­er’ response does not inspire much con­fi­dence in the government’s atti­tude toward reg­u­la­to­ry trans­paren­cy (or sci­ence), does it?

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