Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Radical sharing - Science Commons

A bit slow off the mark with this one but thanks for conference contributions also go to John Wilbanks for a fascinating talk on ‘radical sharing’.

Chris Rusbridge has already given a good overview of the talk on the Digital Curation Blog, so I will just mention a few highlights for me. A couple of the really helpful bits were the analogies he used when describing the operation of copyright in the digital world.

The first was a container and its contents. You can think of copyright as protecting the container but not the contents of the container. This is how copyright has long operated (it doesn’t protect ideas but the expression of those ideas). However, some of the licences users are forced to agree to lock that container. So although the copyright still operates in the same way access to the contents is reduced (in this case by contract). Open Access solves the legal problem but not the container problem.

The second analogy was helpful in explaining the differences in the way journals/books can be used now when they are (often) electronic as opposed to paper based. He compared this to the difference between buying and renting a house.

When you buy a paper based copy it is a hard copy and it is your hard copy. You are free to do what you like with it. This is like owning a house. Now that many publications are electronic it’s more similar to the renting/lease model. You can still read the publication (live in the house) but as with renting you are regulated by a contract which will add further conditions/limitations.

A further useful point that he highlighted is that using copyleft or sharealike in the data world actually hinders freedom. If two datasets with two different licences both based on copyleft or share alike (i.e requiring resulting works to be distributed under same terms) are used, when someone integrates that data and wants to put a licence on the resulting data they would be stuck because both licences insist the resulting data be made available under a particular licence. Thus, they can’t distribute that data without breaking the terms of one of the licences. Copyleft may work within communities where there is consensus on licensing terms but if the aim is to make it available outside that community it presents difficulties.

An example he gave of this was WikiPathways who just changed their licence terms from containing a share-alike condition to CC-BY. They’ve given up their right to sue but have given info to the world. They reward people who follow their intention with use of a trademark and ignore the people who don’t. The opposite way round from what we have come to expect.

John talked more about the approach of the Science Commons project to data sharing. I’m not going to go into this further here as it will be covered in the DCC Science Commons Legal Watch Paper in the New Year. I will however mention two of his other comments.

Firstly, that people are reluctant to share their data because they are worried someone else might muck it up. But it may not have occurred to them that someone else might do something brilliant with it. Something different from their emphasis, that they would not have done.

Secondly, looking back through history it can be seen that it is not unnatural to be in the position these advocates of openness find themselves in. Dislodging entrenched processes is hard work and stable systems are resistant to change on multiple levels. If this is to be the way ahead it will take some great effort to make it work and require voluntary action on the part of many.

One final thought - it occurred to me how often it is a contractual issue rather than a strict IP issue causing difficulty here. Although it is often the case (and correct me if you feel I’m wrong) that the contracts are made to seem more reasonable (and therefore more readily agreed to) through a misunderstanding/overstatement of the IP rights that actually exist.

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