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License or public domain for public sector information?

Mike Linksvayer, June 20th, 2011

Mike Masnick at Techdirt asks Does It Make Sense For Governments To Make Their Content Creative Commons… Or Fully Public Domain?

Ideally all Public Sector Information (PSI; government content and data) would be in the public domain — not restricted by copyright or any related rights. Masnick points to the U.S. federal government’s good policy:

nearly all works produced by the [U.S.] federal government automatically go into the public domain, and don’t receive any form of copyright

Unfortunately it is not quite that good: works produced for the U.S. federal government, but not directly by federal government employees or officers are covered by copyright — including works acquired, produced by contractors, and funded by grants. Furthermore, works produced by U.S. federal government employees are only unambiguously free of copyright in the U.S., thus cannot be considered in the public domain worldwide. This is not to say that the U.S. federal government policy is not stellar — relative to policies of other levels of government within the U.S., and those of other governments worldwide, it truly is, to the particular and tremendous benefit of the U.S. people and economy. But we live in a globalized and highly interconnected world now, and even that stellar policy could be improved.

This brings us to another question: how to improve policy around PSI? The status of U.S. federal government works is specified in the U.S. Copyright Act. Crown Copyright is specified in the copyright acts of various commonwealth jurisdictions. Similarly many other jurisdictions’ copyright acts specify the status of and any special limitations and exceptions to copyright for government works. Clearly changing a jurisdiction’s copyright act or otherwise changing its default status for PSI (preferably to public domain) would be most powerful. But they aren’t changes anyone can effect relatively quickly and deterministically (historically opening up a copyright act has led to more restrictive copyright).

In the meantime (presumably many years) there’s a tremendous desire to make government more accessible and unlock the value of content and data that is funded, held, and produced by governments — and existing public sector copyright defaults are recognized as a barrier to achieving these benefits. Especially in the last few years, governments have been implementing their own directives aimed to modernize PSI while some government agencies and politicians look to move more quickly within their remits, and activist citizens push to clear barriers to the potential of “open government” or “government 2.0″ with utmost urgency. This is where government use of a standard public license, usually one of the Creative Commons licenses, makes lots of sense. An agency, province, city or other body that holds copyright or funds the creation of copyrighted works can choose to open its or funded content by releasing under one of the Creative Commons licenses, or if they are really progressive, under the CC0 Public Domain Dedication.

Many governments are using CC tools in just these ways, and we expect that many more will in the coming years. That said, if any do manage to change policy defaults for PSI such that more government content and data is automatically in the public domain — we will be cheering all the way. In fact, we already have a tool for marking and tagging works that are in the public domain worldwide. The CC Public Domain Mark is currently applicable to really old works, but it would be lovely if a government were to decide to by law make all of its content unambiguously public domain, worldwide, thus making the CC Public Domain Mark applicable (of course there is no requirement to use the mark; it is just there for people and institutions that wish to use it to signal to humans and machines the public domain status of a work).

A couple caveats. First, whether they ought to or not, many governments like using copyright to control PSI. Sometimes the desire comes from a good place, e.g, to have the information be used in a way so as to not mislead the public, imply endorsement of the government, or imply that other regulations, e.g., privacy, do not apply. CC licenses have mechanisms to address these concerns where relevant (e.g., attribution to original URL, noting adaptation, non-endorsement) and government licensing frameworks (or non-binding guidelines in the case of the public domain) that explain orthogonal rights and responsibilities (e.g., privacy) but do not create incompatible licenses are key to addressing these concerns.

Second, although as noted above, usually use of any CC license would give the public more rights to PSI than they have now. But, licenses with a NonCommercial or NoDerivatives restriction set the bar too low. Clearly to maximize the value of public sector information, business needs to have access, and to maximize the ability of citizens to do interesting things with content, adaptation needs to be permitted. We strongly prefer governments use fully free/open CC tools — the CC0 Public Domain Dedication and CC Attribution (BY) and Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) licenses. The Definition of Free Cultural Works and Open Knowledge Definition spell out why those tools are preferred in general. We look forward to working with the Open Knowledge Foundation and others to flesh out the specific and even more compelling case for fully free/open PSI.

Further reading:

7 Comments »

Does your sharing scale?

Mike Linksvayer, September 2nd, 2009

Techdirt’s Mike Masnick is perhaps the most prolific blogger on the ill impact of overly restrictive legal regimes, including of course copyright and patents, but also trademark and even employment law (see Noncompete Agreements Are The DRM Of Human Capital) and often on people delivering real value to customers (sad that these are considered “alternative” business models) instead of replying on protectionist legal measures — as blogged here, Masnick’s case study on NIN is an absolute must read/watch — and he hosts awesome guest authors.

So it’s a little disappointing to read Masnick write:

I don’t use any of their licenses, because I don’t necessarily see the point. We’ve declared in the past that the content here is free for anyone to do what they want with it, and thus I feel no need for a Creative Commons license.

The need arises from the reality that sharing without standardized legal tools doesn’t scale. It doesn’t scale socially — if I wasn’t a regular Techdirt reader I wouldn’t know that Masnick had declared Techdirt content is free for anyone and for any purpose (and even now I could only find one such declaration because I remembered that Masnick had written about it in a post that mentioned CC!), nor depending on wording would I know what that meant. It doesn’t scale technically — there’s no way for software such as search engines to recognize ad hoc declarations. It doesn’t scale legally — any community or institution that requires legal certainty (eg due to risk that the community’s work will be suppressed or that the institution will be financially liable) will avoid ad hoc declarations.

It’s no surprise that in the more developed field of free and open source software (which has a 10+ year head start on free culture/open content) anyone who claims that making an ad hoc declaration is good enough and did not release their code under an established license would be laughed at and their code not allowed in other projects, distributions, and repositories, not to mention getting no attention from IBM, Google, Red Hat and thousands of other corporate contributors to and adopters of open source software.

Communities and institutions outside software also require works under established licenses (ie those provided by CC) to scale, e.g., Wikipedia, OpenCourseWare, the Public Library of Science and many, many others. What about individuals and small group efforts? Of course they don’t have to use real legal tools for their content any more than an individual programmer has to share code under an established open source license — that is if they don’t actually want others to “do what they want” with their content or code — because no license means no-understand, no-find, and no-go.

One of Masnick’s best turns is his stylized formula Connect With Fans (CwF) + Reason To Buy (RtB) = The Business Model ($$$$). As he explains, each part of the formula has many facets — reasonable copyright terms are just one — and as he points out, in a sense copyright is irrelevant, as CwF+RtB would work in the complete absence of copyright. However, as Techdirt points out every day, copyright is in more than full effect, producing all kinds of anti-creative and anti-innovation effects, from labels suing fans, bloggers, startups and anyone else available to heirs suppressing the use of work by long-dead authors. In this environment it seems rather necessary to offer fans the legal certainty of an established public license that grants at least the right to non-commercially share. Anything less seems to betray a lack of respect for fans or, if done unknowingly, is an instance of failed sharing.

Of course one might want to go beyond offering a relatively restrictive license and not rely on copyright at all, giving fans complete freedom with respect to one’s works. As Masnick has noted, CC has developed a legally rigorous tool to do just that, worldwide — CC0 — we hope that he is still considering it.☺

The Techdirt post quoted above is primarily a solid response to another blogger’s post on whether CC is good or bad for copyright policy — a very worthy question. Masnick’s conclusion is good:

Many of the people behind it went through (and are still going through) numerous battles to push back on the excesses of copyright. Creative Commons wasn’t the solution — it was a helpful (and hopefully temporary) oasis in a bleak desert, following numerous well-reasoned, but ultimately futile attempts to push back corporate expansion of copyright. And while I agree that there are problems with shifting the issue to a contractual agreement (and the post highlights some of the many legal problems CC licenses may cause), I think that CC, as a whole, did turn a lot more people onto the some of the problems with copyright law as it stands today. In many ways, CC is an easy way for people to first start to understand the problems of copyright law, in understanding why CC is needed.

From there, many who do understand this have started questioning the larger issues around copyright — and many of those involved with CC have continued to fight that good fight, rather than just assuming that CC is “the answer.” So, in the end, I agree that we should be clear to recognize that Creative Commons and efforts to really rethink copyright are two separate things, but that doesn’t mean that Creative Commons is necessarily bad for copyright policy issues. It has been, and hopefully will continue to be, a real stepping stone to getting more people to recognize these bigger issues. In fact, I’d argue that many of the folks now leading the debate for more reasoned copyright policy in Canada first came to understand these issues via their exposure to Creative Commons’ licenses.

While CC and other voluntary efforts (such as free software and open access) aren’t the solution (if there is such a thing), their contribution goes well beyond serving as stepping stones for thinking about how messed up the copyright environment is. They are simultaneously tools for enabling billions of dollars of collaboration across organization boundaries and unlocking untold social value now and in proving out models that don’t rely on excessive enforcement, changing the facts on the ground in a systemic way that arguably should increase the probability of good outcomes relative to those likely to result from a single-track strategy of merely complaining about the current regime as it worsens.

Copycense, the blogger that Techdirt responds to above, has unrealistic assessments of CC’s ability to “muzzle” the conversation about copyright reform and of the ability of such a conversation to obtain the “best case scenario, with a balanced and effective law that serves citizens and corporate owners equally well”. Copycense is enamored with the current Canadian copyright consultation — it’s worth noting that CC Canada has been around since 2004, that Michael Geist, the most prominent voice for positive reform, is a long time CC user and advocate — one can hardly say CC has muzzled the conversation — and furthermore it isn’t clear the consultation will lead to any good progress. Hopefully good reform will result, and many involved in CC in Canada and elsewhere are also involved in reform efforts (if you read French see the consultation of Olivier Charbonneau, one of the project leads of CC Canada) — but to denigrate voluntary efforts, at least while some rather intractable problems with the ability of concentrated interests to hijack politics remain, is a gigantic missed opportunity at best, and possibly flirting with very bad outcomes.

2 Comments »

Day Of Sharing

Mike Linksvayer, February 26th, 2009

Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, responding to a proposal for a day of sharingstealing:

Gibbs is simply showing his own ignorance of the difference between scarce and infinite goods. That’s because his “Day of Sharing” is a recommendation that people steal (yes, steal!) physical things. He claims that this will show people that sharing music is stealing — but, of course, he’s wrong. Making a copy of an infinite good is entirely different than taking a scarce good away from someone

Masnick follows with an excellent proposal for a real Day of Sharing:

However, if he wants a “Day of Sharing,” perhaps we should give it to him. On the day he’s chosen as his Day of Sharing, November 29, 2009 (the day after Thanksgiving) we should all send him copies of free, public domain or Creative Commons-licensed music from musicians who actually have an open mind on this issue and who encourage sharing, knowing that, with the right business model, it actually helps them tremendously. That would be a true Day of Sharing and would perhaps show Mr. Gibbs that perhaps things aren’t so bad as he thinks they are.

Read the whole post and mark your calendars.

If you haven’t already, also check out Masnick’s case study on the digital music business, Connect With Fans (CwF) + Reason To Buy (RtB) = The Business Model ($$$$).

3 Comments »

NIN case study video: Connect with Fans + Reason to Buy

Mike Linksvayer, February 6th, 2009

Techdirt’s Mike Masnick gave a great case study lecture on Nine Inch Nails’ music business successes at MidemNet last month. He describes the “formula” as:

Connect With Fans (CwF) + Reason To Buy (RtB) = The Business Model ($$$$)

Toward the end of the video he explains CwF also means “Compete with Free” and RtB means “Return to Business” as an alternative to prosecuting fans.

Offering creative work under a CC license (as NIN has done with its last two albums) is a way to powerfully signal an intention to connect with fans and that the creator has returned to business. This doesn’t absolve a creator from the need to provide interesting reasons to buy that compete with (or perhaps rather complement) free, which NIN has done in spades.

Another good point Masnick makes at the end of the presentation is that the model works for large and small creators. A few years ago, often I’d hear people comment that tools like CC licensing were only useful for artists that weren’t well known and needed to take extreme measures to promote their works. Ironically, more recently, and especially following NIN’s successes, I see comments that open music can only work for bands that already have a rabid fan base. Obviously both can’t be true, and it turns out neither is. See some of Masnick’s previous posts on open music business models (here’s a recent one with lots of links back) for more.

If Masnick’s lecture inspires you as an artist to try the model, go for it — for additional inspiration check out Jonathan Coulton’s letter for CC’s recent campaign (because he writes eloquently about how essentially the model Masnick describes has worked for him, not because he’s asking for donations to CC, though you can make those too). If you’re inspired to help document and explain successful applications of the model, we’d love for you to help expand the CC case studies project, which is going to get much bigger this spring.

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