ACTA, SOPA, PIPA, RWA and what do they have to do with psychologists

These days, the news are full of acronyms dealing with various legislation concerning copyright. The problematic of copyright laws has long since left the geeky closet of the software community or the posh one of the poor and abused music industry. The acronyms in our title, familiar to most, are proof enough of their mainstream status. It is a central issue for the new generation, and everybody has an opinion on it. In this post, I would like to put the open access movement into that context, to see how it relates to the general public outcry regarding copyright legislation. Are these things connected? If yes, how?

The Internet radically changed how we deal with information. This is probably the tackiest line of the digital era, but its overuse is a statement enough of its pervasiveness. First, the change was heralded by all, without considering its wider implications. It was not out of shortsightedness because nobody could have known what exactly the new way of accessing and sharing information would bring. Nowadays, we are used to having all the information at our fingertips. Music, books, movies, news articles, how-to’s, videos, photos–all these things are only a mouse click away. They all existed before the Internet, but the way of accessing them is novel and unprecedented. Despite this, the industries behind them have not changed, or if they did, their changes were cosmetic at best. A good example of this is the music industry. Before iTunes, we would buy our music in shops on CDs and tapes. We would pay money to get a recording of a song for our own use.

Nowadays, we do the same, but we omit the hardware part and pay directly for the information. The model has not changed–it only mutated and left us with its essence, access to music. The application of this outdated model can be seen in the copyright hardliner’s equating theft and piracy. “When you download an album from the Internet, it is the same as shoplifting it.” Well, actually, it isn’t. By shoplifting it, I have made it impossible for the shop to sell it again. By pirating it, I just made a perfect copy for my personal use. Does it mean that piracy is not wrong? That is a point of discussion, but what it means is that it surely it does not equal theft.

Taking a psychological (or sociological) perspective, the media storm against the new copyright legislation is a clash of generations. The people proposing the laws, voting on them, writing them and profiting from them are from the good old Generation X. They are the serious establishment–governments and their agencies, big money advocating groups and industry representatives and a slew of other interest groups. They were by and large raised and socialized in a society before the advent of the Internet. They understand the concept, use it to profit but they don’t have the instinctive feeling for it. It’s a new development for them, something to adapt to, not the natural setting. Naturally, when it comes to the world wide web, they apply models  t h e y  are familiar with. However, more often than not, those models prove to be ineffective in the new digital word of such subtleties that differentiate between stealing and pirating.

The Generation Y, on the other hand, live and breathe the Internet. They are the digital natives. They use what new information technology has to offer to its full potential, remixing and tweaking to no end. Most importantly, the Generation X models of access are alien to them. Rather than copyright, they are copyleft. On a practical level, the understanding of the previously described theft-piracy dichotomy is something natural to them. Of course, nothing is that black and white–I am sure there are people in their sixties who are avid copylefters and people in their twenties who would sign all the ACTAs, SOPAs, and PIPAs in the world. But that only proves that people are people are people, and that the copyright laws are actually the newest permutation of the young vs. old conflict.

What does this have to do with open access?

The scientific community, in some part, is just on the outskirts of this issue. Access to science is vital to the experts–a relatively small, homogeneous, close knit community of people. We too have inherited the business models from times when scientific journals were mailed to readers in hard copies. On the other side, science is a central part of the modern democratic establishment. This might not be that obvious for a relatively profit non-intensive field like psychology, but there are big bucks in science. And when you are a publishing house, having practical monopoly on what gets published and read, you just might abuse it. The consequence of these two traits of scientific publishing–the expert and the profit intensive–is that it was dominated by the establishment.

The request for public access to research results has started deconstructing the expert intensive part of scientific publishing (its exclusiveness) while the new movement in business models native to the Internet has helped in dismantling the business side of the problem. Through this, the open access movement has started eroding the old publishing models, but it is a slow process. The disorganization and lack of coordination between green and gold OA routes has not helped either.

All in all, we should recognize that the open access movement is just another facet of the copyright discussions that are shaking our society. The topic is getting wide traction, and we should use it to the maximum to push scientific publishing models to their limits. Access to research should be as important as is access to Youtube, Wikipedia or other popular sites–if not even more.

References and links for further reading

Grant, B. (2009, May 7). Elsevier published 6 fake journals. The Scientist. Retrieved from:

N. N. (2012, Feb 11). Acta up. The Economist. Retrieved from:

Taylor, M. (2012, Jan 18). Oppose SOPA, PIPA and the RWA. Retrieved from:

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (2012).  Retrieved from:



Ivan Flis is a graduate student of psychology at the Center for Croatian Studies at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of European Psychology Students (JEPS) and the Chair of the Right to Research Coalition Coordinating Committee for Africa, Europe and Middle East.

Ivan Flis

Ivan Flis is a PhD student in History and Philosophy of Science at the Descartes Centre, Utrecht University; and has a degree in psychology from the University of Zagreb, Croatia. His research focuses on quantitative methodology in psychology, its history and application, and its relation to theory construction in psychological research. He had been an editor of JEPS for three years in the previous mandates.

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  • me

    Let me play devil’s advocate here a bit: while it is true that piracy is not equal to shoplifting, that doesn’t mean that piracy is not theft. A person can acknowledge the difference between physical property theft and piracy while insisting that the later is in fact intellectual property THEFT. She can claim that there is no reason why the notion of theft should be reserved to physical property as long as it includes taking of another person’s (intellectual) property without that person’s permission.

  • Ivan Flis

    But that’s just the thing. When you apply the concept of physical property to ideas, you get into the quagmire of theft vs. piracy problem. But ideas are so very much different than property – for starters, they’re not as quantifiable. Can you say where one idea starts and another begins? What are the boundaries between ideas? To enforce a law, this has to be clear. But for ideas, it’s not as simple as for property.

    For example:

    But even if you don’t agree that intellectual ‘property’ vs. physical property are different, you cannot use the word theft for piracy. It’s semantically wrong. Take the definition of theft:

    1. criminal law the dishonest taking of property belonging to another person with the intention of depriving the owner permanently of its possession (definition taken from: )

    Nobody has the intention of depriving the owner permanently when she pirates. On the contrary, most pirates are fans – they want the ‘owner’ to have even more, so they can pirate more. The crucial part of the definition is not the unlawful taking, but the intention of depriving the owner of his possession.

  • dimitris

    Really good writing Ivan.

    But to be honest, I don’t think I want to see the Open Access issues talked as if it’s the same as the intellectual property issues.

    For intellectual property there is a debate with Apple almost saying that if it’s black, rectacular, with a button and makes phone calls it theirs on the one side and with users saying that there is no such thing as intelectual property on the other. I think that the truth will be found somewhere in the middle but that is irrelevant.

    There is no reason for Open Access to follow this path because the creators want and need as many more people to read them. And, let’s be honest, not many researchers will not send papers for free via email if anyone asks. Maybe the most important difference is that the researchers’ funding will not be affected if someone copies it. And I haven’t even started talking about the fact that usually the tax payers money are paying for both the researcher’s salary (if at a public university) and the separate funding for the research.

    There are so many ethical points for Open Access that we don’t see in the general intellectual property talk, that should finish the first discussion a lot earlier than the second.
    I don’t know if it will, but it should.

  • Ivan Flis

    Thanks Dimitris.

    But consider that any changes in legislation, approach or definition of copyright that arise from intellectual property discussions (protests? coups?) will have ramifications on all copyright – even things like Creative Commons or the public domain. We need to redefine copyright and the industries behind it.

    Another point of similarity is the for-profit publisher’s view of research – its their property from which they earn money. The same is as with the lobbyists behind the new intellectual property legislation. They see their property endangered, as do the scientific publishers. So even though connecting the two might open a whole new can of worms, they are connected. For better or for worse.

  • dimitris

    You are right. But scientific papers author is payed by someone else, not the publisher, and usually that payer is the end user.
    It’s that simple.

    You can’t say that for the music or software or mobile creator. And for that reason the discussion can continue there.

    Because the 2 are connected I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up discussing them as the same. But I feel that this can only help the publishers because they have more to say on the other sides of this topic.

  • Ivan Flis

    I didn’t get what you mean. For scientific papers, from the author’s perspective, piracy isn’t something to be frowned upon (if by piracy we mean (a) disseminating (b) remixing (c) using and tweaking). If it’s attributed, the authors are all for sharing their content. The publishers are the ones viewing it as property from which they derive profit – thus they have to control the channels of dissemination and access.

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