I want to own the Medical Dictionary

March 26, 2010

The National Cancer Institue (NCI) just released the Term Browser (http://nciterms.nci.nih.gov/) that gives access to medical terms used in health care as well as in biological and medical research. Unfortunately it comes with some strange strings attached. In order to search for “Mitochondria” I had to first accept the following three licenses:

License 1
The Medical Dictionary for Regulatory Activities (MedDRA) terminology is licensed for NCI work and may be viewed on NCI browsers. All other uses are prohibited, unless covered by separate subscription to MedDRA from the MedDRA MSSO (see http://www.meddramsso.com) or contact at http://mssohelp@ngc.com, 877.258.8280, or 12011 Sunset Hills Road Reston Virginia, 20190-3285.

 License 2
The International Health Terminology Standards Development Organisation (IHTSDO) allows use of SNOMED CT in NCI Enterprise Vocabulary Services, but requires licensing for other purposes (see

License 3:
Government information at NLM Web sites is in the public domain. Public domain information may be freely distributed and copied, but it is requested that in any subsequent use the National Library of Medicine (NLM) be given appropriate acknowledgement as specified at

It looks like I have to cross too many fences in order to get to a place that should be a Public Space anyway.

Let’s start with License 1. I spent a couple of hours navigating the public subscription page and I still don’t know what their license looks like. Apparently you first need to fill out this form check out the payment terms and then you will be able to see the contract that regulates your use of the medical dictionnary.

The SNOMED license (License 2 above), which is actually a contract in the image of many End User License Agreements (EULA), is an example of abusive attempt to control activities well beyond the realm of copyright. They essentially want to own the medical dictionnay and to control the worldwide use of its words. This 19 page license agreement is an interesting example of world domination aspirations. It includes partitioning the world into regions, just like DVD licensing does.

License 3  is the equivalent of a BSD license, and at least it fits in a single page, so it is likely that normal humans may be inclined to read it before they die of their current ailments. It is, however, paradoxical that License 3 starts by saying that the material is in the Public Domain, and then it proceeds to impose a permission on its use.

In contrast to this over-fenced structure, I found that I can search for “mitochondria” and find this page in a matter of seconds. It is under a CC by Attribution license: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrion and was created by volunteers…   🙂

Even better, the MedlinePlus page http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ let me find about “Mitochondria” in a matter of seconds without having to call my lawyer for consultation first.

The medical dictionary should be in the Public Domain.

People shouldn’t need to ask for permission in order to use the medical terms required to describe their health problems.

It is time for public agencies to hire Economists, particularly ones with background in Anti-Trust regulations. They will be able to explain why it is not good a idea for a society to let a particular organization to “own” the words of the dictionnary.

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