Misusing Copyright Laws in Medicine

Many doctors in all parts of the world have photocopied the questionnaire hundreds of times. In strict law they may be guilty of having infringed copyright and therefore liable, in theory, to penalties according to the copyright laws of their country. In the United States, unwitting infringement of copyright carries a fine of up to $30,000, and willful infringement up to $150,000, with the possibility of a prison sentence to boot.

The text of the MMSE has been disappearing from textbooks because of the copyright problem; it is available from the licensee for purchase at $1.23 per test. But it is against human nature to expect doctors or hospitals around the world to pay this each time they use it; that, having once bought it, they will not copy it but instead buy it again and again. Policing the copyright will therefore be impossible, and very intrusive if attempted.

I suppose there is no reason why a questionnaire should not be commercialized in the same way as a more tangible piece of equipment to which a patent applies; but, perhaps irrationally, I still find it rather distasteful.

One group of people, however, who will be delighted by the problem of the infringement of copyright are lawyers. Scales similar to the MMSE are now quite widely used in medical practice. For example, the Glasgow Coma Scale is used to assess a person’s level of consciousness after a head injury. Many, but by no means all, such scales are copyrighted in the same way as the MMSE, though attempts to assert copyright are, as yet, rare. With a little lawyerly ingenuity, this could change and give rise to a whole new field of litigation, wasting the substance of people and institutions.

How detestable as a profession lawyers are -- until you need one, of course!