My Bad…or how far should the open mindset go?
So while on the train yesterday in somewhat pre-caffeinated state I stuck my foot in it somewhat. Several others have written (Nils Reinton, Bill Hooker, Jon Eisen, Hsien-Hsien Lei, Shirley Wu) on the unattributed use of an image that was put together by Ricardo Vidal for the DNA Network of blogs. The company that did this are selling hokum. No question of that. Now the logo is in fact clearly marked as copyright on Flickr but even if it were marked as CC-BY then the company would be in violation of the license for not attributing. But, despite the fact that it is clearly technically wrong, I felt that the outrage being expressed was inconsistent with the general attitude that materials should be shared, re-useable, and available for re-purposing.
So in the related Friendfeed thread I romped in, offended several people (particularly by using the word hypocritical which I should not have done, like I said, pre-caffeine) and had to back up and re-think what it was I was trying to say. Actually this is a good thing about Friendfeed, the rapid fire discussion can encourage semi-baked comments and ideas which are then leapt on and need to be more carefully thought through and refined. In science criticism is always valuable, agreement is often a waste of time.
So at core my concern is largely about the apparent message that can be sent by a group of “open” activists objecting about the violation of the copyright of a member of their community. As I wrote further down in the comments;
“…There is a danger that this kind of thing comes across as ‘everything should be pd [pubic domain] but when my mate copyrights something and you violate it I will jump down your throat’. The subtext being it is ok to violate copyright for ‘good’ reasons but not for ‘bad’ reasons… “
It is crucially important to me that when you argue that an area of law is poorly constructed, ineffective or having unexpected consequences, that you scrupulously operate within that law, while not criticising those who cut corners. At the same time if I argue that the risks of having people ‘steal’ my work are outweighed by the benefits of sharing then I should roll with the punches when bad stuff does happen.There is the specific issue that what was done is a breach of copyright as well and then the general issue that if people were more able to do this kind of thing that it would be good. The fact that it was used for a nasty service preying on people’s fears is at one level neither here nor there (or rather the moral rights issue is I think a separate, and rather complicated one that will not fit in this particular margin, does the use of the logo misrepresent Ricardo? Does it misrepresent the DNA network – who remember don’t own it?).
More broadly I think there is a mindset that goes with the way the web works and the way that sharing works that means we need to get away from the idea of the object or the work as property.The value of objects lies only in their scarcity, or their lack of presence. With the advent of the world’s greatest copying machine, no digital object need be scarce. It is not the object that has value, because it can be infinitely copied for near zero cost, it is the skill and expertise in putting the object together that has value. The argument of the “commonists” is that you will spend more on using licences and secrecy to protect objects than you could be making by finding the people who need your skills to make just the thing that they need, right now. If this is true it presumably holds for data, for scientific papers, for photos, for video, for software, for books, and for logos.
The argument that I try to promote (and many others do much better) is that we need to get away from the concepts and language of ownership of these digital objects. That even thinking in terms of it being “mine” is counterproductive and actually reduces value. It may be the case that there are limits to where these arguments hold, and if there is it probably has something to do with the intrinsic timeframe of the production cycle for a class of objects, but that is a thought for another time. What worried me was that people seemed to be using language that is driven by thinking about propery and scarcity; “theft”, “stealing”. In my view we should be talking about “service quality”, “delivery time”, and “availability”. This is where value lies on the net, not in control, and not in ownership of objects.
None of which is to say that people should not be completely free to license work which they produce in any way that they choose, and I will defend their right to do this. But at the same time I will work to persuade these same people that some types of license are counterproductive, particularly those that attempt to control content. If you beleive that science is better for the things that make it up being shared and re-used, that the value of a person’s work is increased by others re-using this why shouldn’t that apply to other types of work? The key thing is a consistent and clear message.
I try to be consistent, and I am by no means always successful, but its a work in progress. Anyone is free to re-use and re-purpose anything I generate in whatever way they choose. If I disagree with the use I will say so. If it is unattributed I might comment, and I might name names, but I won’t call in the lawyers. If I am inconsistent I invite, and indeed expect, people to say so. I would hope that criticism would come from the friendly faces before it comes from people with another agenda. That, at the end of the day, is the main benefit of being open. It’s all just error checking in the end.