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Open and the “Next Great Copyright Act”

- March 20, 2013 in Legal, Open Content, Public Domain

Director of the U.S. Copyright Office Maria Pallante is expected to call today for updates to U.S. copyright law. Her brief written testimony is already available and a longer speech given two weeks ago (titled “The Next Great Copyright Act”) provides additional flavor. Substantial changes to copyright will take years to play out in the U.S., and similarly around the world. If Open is to impact how copyright and other knowledge regulation plays out over the next years, we must assert how and why, and develop our strategies for making it so. Statements like Pallante’s provide not-to-be-missed opportunities to contextualize and explain the importance of Open to the world. While Pallante’s calls are at best a mixed bag, two items offer glimmers of hope and are useful for illustrating both the value and strategy of Open:
Congress also may need to apply fresh eyes to the next great copyright act to ensure that the copyright law remains relevant and functional. This may require some bold adjustments to the general framework. You may want to consider alleviating some of the pressure and gridlock brought about by the long copyright term — for example, by reverting works to the public domain after a period of life plus fifty years unless heirs or successors register their interests with the Copyright Office.
50 years with an option for more is far from anything that might be considered optimal — OKF’s Rufus Pollock has estimated 15 years and others less, even before accounting for values achieved through openness such as freedom and equality — and is a dangerous place to start new debate, considering that Disney lobbyists have not yet weighed in. But any possibility of mitigating the heretofore relentless march of copyright term extension and by implication appreciation of the value of the public domain is welcome, and an opportunity. Some of the most compelling work by the Open community involves making public domain works accessible, and celebrating our bounty. Compelling for culture — and critical for policy. What better way to make the case for expanding and protecting the public domain than to demonstrate and increase the value of works that are free of copyright restriction even now? Well, we have to talk about our work in those terms, loudly! Public Domain Review postcards Pallante:
And in compelling circumstances, you may wish to reverse the general principle of copyright law that copyright owners should grant prior approval for the reproduction and dissemination of their works — for example, by requiring copyright owners to object or “opt out” in order to prevent certain uses, whether paid or unpaid, by educational institutions or libraries.
Openly licensed works — those that all are free to use, reuse, and redistribute subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike — unambiguously permit such uses, right now, and are increasingly becoming expected and even mandated where public funding is provided or public benefit is a primary goal. What better way to make the case for liberal policy where public funding or benefit is at stake than to promote and demonstrate the value of Open works now? Again, we have to talk about our usual pro-openness work’s relevance to policy, loudly! But open licensing is opt-in (even when mandated, it is as if a group opted-in, still leaving default policy for everyone else), ultimately limiting its impact. We shouldn’t shy away from that reality — indeed it is a key reason open licensing can be, if we make it so, a harbinger of better default policy, but not at all a substitute for better default policy. When positioning Open in the context of broader copyright and other information regulation debates, we shouldn’t be content to merely address points made in those debates, but from an Open perspective. We must also raise additional issues that arise from the experience of Open movements: a knowledge commons requires protection and promotion. Private enclosure of public domain and Open works, eg through “copyfraud”, might be addressed through policy. Ensuring the public’s right to audit, understand, replicate, and modify data and tools such as software and designs for research and hardware, might be addressed through policy. Actually we know these can be addressed through policy, as demonstrated for decades on an opt-in basis through copyleft, one of the signal innovations of our movements. Although over 25 years old (starting with free software), open licenses and the amazing projects that use them (that run the Internet, and are making governments more transparent, bit by bit, and so much more) have played almost no explicit role in debates about default copyright policy. Hopefully you’re beginning to think that we can change that — with little or no alteration of our existing Open activities, as we mainly need to appreciate just how provocative and potent those are, and tell the public, especially the policy world. Ultimately, we can shift the centrality of “copyright policy” to that of “open policy” — what information regulation is best for the knowledge commons — for all humanity’s yearning for freedom, equality, and well governed institutions.

Protecting the foundations of Open Knowledge

- February 13, 2013 in OKF, Open Definition, Open Knowledge Definition, Open Standards

The foundations of the Foundation

The Open Knowledge Definition (OKD) was one of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s very first projects: drafted in 2005, 1.0 in 2006. By stipulating what Open means, the OKD has been foundational to the OKF’s work, as illustrated by this several-years-old diagram of the Open Knowledge “stack”. Knowing your foundations seems a must in any field, but even more so in an explosively growing and cross-disciplinary one. The OKD has kept the OKF itself on-track, as it has started and facilitated dozens of projects over the last years. Burgeoning movements for open access, culture, data, education, government, and more have also benefited from a shared understanding of Open in face of “openwashing” on one hand, and lack of understanding on another. In either case, when works and projects claimed or intended as Open are actually closed, society loses: closed doesn’t create an interoperable commons. A selection of OKF blog posts from the past few years illustrates how the OKD plays a low-profile but essential role in setting the standard for Open in a variety of fields:

Recent developments

In 2008 an Advisory Council was inaugurated to steward the OKD and related defintions. I joined the council later in 2008, and recently agreed to serve as its chair for a year. Since then we’ve discussed and provided feedback on intended-open licenses, in particular an Open Government License Canada proposal, iterated on an ongoing discussion about refinements needed in the next version of the OKD, and made our processes for approving licenses – as well as new council members – slightly more rigorous. We’ve also taken the crucial step of adding new council members with deep expertise in Public Sector Information/Open Government Data, where we expect much of the “action” in Open and intended-open licenses in the next years to be. I’m very happy to welcome:
  • Baden Appleyard, National Programme Director at AusGOAL
  • Tariq Khokhar, Open Data Evangelist at the World Bank
  • Herb Lainchbury, Citizen, Developer and Founder of
  • Federico Morando, Managing Director at the Nexa Center
  • Andrew Stott, Former Director for Transparency and Digital Engagement and Co-Chair of the Open Government Data Working Group at the Open Knowledge Foundation.
While many of them will be well known to many of our readers, you may find their brief bios and websites on the Advisory Council page. It is also time to thank three former council members for their service in years past:
  • Paul Jacobson
  • Rob Styles
  • John Wilbanks
Open movements will continue to grow rapidly (unless we fail miserably). You can help ensure we succeed splendidly! We could always use more help reviewing and providing feedback on licenses, but there are also roles for designers, programmers, translators, writers, and people committed to sound open strategy. See a recent get involved update for more. Most of all, make sure your open access / culture / education / government / science project is truly open — is a good place for you and your colleagues to start!