Mike Masnick

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:

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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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