Open Source Licensing Defuses Copyright Law's Threat to Medicine

Steve Tokar | University of California San Francisco | December 28, 2011

Enforcing copyright law could potentially interfere with patient care, stifle innovation and discourage research, but using open source licensing instead can prevent the problem, according to a physician – who practices both at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the San Francisco VA Medical Center – and a legal scholar at the UC Hastings College of Law.

“For a long time, doctors have been able to ignore copyright, but that is changing in a dramatic way,” said John Newman, MD, PhD, of UCSF and SFVAMC. “The exercise of copyright is creating a threat to basic medical care,” said Robin Feldman, JD, professor of law and Director of the Law and Bioscience Project at UC Hastings.

They discuss the issue in a “Perspective” in the Dec. 29 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. The incident that prompted Newman and Feldman’s analysis was the removal from the internet of the Sweet 16, a freely available clinical assessment tool used by physicians to screen patients for cognitive problems. The tool was taken down because of legal action by the creators of a similar tool called the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE).

Clinical tools tend to resemble one another, Newman said, “not because their creators are unoriginal, but because the tools are based on the same research and the same science.”...