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.


  • 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.

  • Thanks Steve.

    You may wish to tell Lindsay Tanner that story. He is giving the ‘Redmond Barry’ lecture at the Victorian State Library on 30 July, in Melbourne praising, it appears, the development of a new environment of openness in Australian Government (?!).

    Details here: http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/programs/ltf/lectures/rbl/2008/index.html

  • 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

  • First sentence, second paragraph should have read “can” not “cannot”.

  • 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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