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My Bad…or how far should the open mindset go?

9 November 2008 26 Comments

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.


  • CP

    The last two lines of the post are a little mystifying. Is it the first two lines of a haiku?

  • CP

    The last two lines of the post are a little mystifying. Is it the first two lines of a haiku?

  • If you meant the two lines I’ve just removed it’s due to a rather strange response of the blog editor to a firefox extension I have intalled that it adds text relating to objects it recgonises.

  • If you meant the two lines I’ve just removed it’s due to a rather strange response of the blog editor to a firefox extension I have intalled that it adds text relating to objects it recgonises.

  • Paulo

    I think you still need to drink more coffee … You know that “web objects” can be transported to a place some people live that is called real world. You may also know that to create a logo (or a mere “web object”) sometimes companies pay hundreds of dollars/pounds/yenes/etc. It is a strange world we live in, eh? where you pay for something or don’t steal.

    Blog posts are just a series of words, some caffeinated, some not. If we let an infinite number of monkeys type infinte words, we might come up with a coherent blog post or comment, without caffeine.

  • Paulo

    I think you still need to drink more coffee … You know that “web objects” can be transported to a place some people live that is called real world. You may also know that to create a logo (or a mere “web object”) sometimes companies pay hundreds of dollars/pounds/yenes/etc. It is a strange world we live in, eh? where you pay for something or don’t steal.

    Blog posts are just a series of words, some caffeinated, some not. If we let an infinite number of monkeys type infinte words, we might come up with a coherent blog post or comment, without caffeine.

  • Paulo, that’s exactly my point at some level. The argument that I’m pushing is exactly a company/person/whatever pay for a logo (or whatever) because they need something specific and they need it now. It’s not the object they are paying for, it’s the availability of what they need when they want it. The other part of the argument is that it is better to give some stuff away, and allow people to spread and build on your work, because it raises your profile, and will bring people who need something that doesn’t exist – for which they are willing to pay.

    What I am trying to say (and not necessarily being clear about it) is that for objects that can be infinitely copied I think this idea of ownership of the object itself is counterproductive. This doesn’t apply to material goods, or things that can be depleted. I am not about to freely share my house – because if I do so I won’t be able to live in it. But I will freely share this written stuff because I think I get more value out of people copying and re-using it than I possibly could by trying to sell it.

    Actually I think the really interesting question is to what extent this logic can be carried to the “real world”. So does the argument that patents are a complete waste of money for internet startups carry for biotechs, or for drug development, or for engineering firms. If not, where does the boundary lie and why does the idea break?

  • Paulo, that’s exactly my point at some level. The argument that I’m pushing is exactly a company/person/whatever pay for a logo (or whatever) because they need something specific and they need it now. It’s not the object they are paying for, it’s the availability of what they need when they want it. The other part of the argument is that it is better to give some stuff away, and allow people to spread and build on your work, because it raises your profile, and will bring people who need something that doesn’t exist – for which they are willing to pay.

    What I am trying to say (and not necessarily being clear about it) is that for objects that can be infinitely copied I think this idea of ownership of the object itself is counterproductive. This doesn’t apply to material goods, or things that can be depleted. I am not about to freely share my house – because if I do so I won’t be able to live in it. But I will freely share this written stuff because I think I get more value out of people copying and re-using it than I possibly could by trying to sell it.

    Actually I think the really interesting question is to what extent this logic can be carried to the “real world”. So does the argument that patents are a complete waste of money for internet startups carry for biotechs, or for drug development, or for engineering firms. If not, where does the boundary lie and why does the idea break?

  • Do you mind if I start a blog called “Science in the open” and pretend that my name is “Cameron Neylon” and then fill that blog with dreadful, hateful nonsense? After all, your name and your blog’s name aren’t limited physical resources, right? Does ownership extend to your online identity? Isn’t using someone else’s logo a misrepresentation of identity?

  • Do you mind if I start a blog called “Science in the open” and pretend that my name is “Cameron Neylon” and then fill that blog with dreadful, hateful nonsense? After all, your name and your blog’s name aren’t limited physical resources, right? Does ownership extend to your online identity? Isn’t using someone else’s logo a misrepresentation of identity?

  • Your philosophy is misplaced here. Somebody designed a logo, and somebody else stole it. It’s even worse that the company sells fraudulent product, but the idea of “stealing a logo” is well defined.

  • Your philosophy is misplaced here. Somebody designed a logo, and somebody else stole it. It’s even worse that the company sells fraudulent product, but the idea of “stealing a logo” is well defined.

  • There are plenty of well defined ideas, and indeed legally defined ideas, that are either wrong, misleading, or ineffective. What I am trying to argue (I think – and I am still feeling around this myself) is that the language of property is not helpful – that the real problem here is misattribution or lack of attribution, not the act of copying itself. Maybe this is clearer in the follow up post?

  • There are plenty of well defined ideas, and indeed legally defined ideas, that are either wrong, misleading, or ineffective. What I am trying to argue (I think – and I am still feeling around this myself) is that the language of property is not helpful – that the real problem here is misattribution or lack of attribution, not the act of copying itself. Maybe this is clearer in the follow up post?

  • Nice piece! Now my comments on FF feel even more stupid … :)

    Two guys were recently convicted in The Netherlands for stealing electronic goods… [1] Electronic stuff is indeed never scarce… but if taking it damages the one who owned it, in any way, it is does not really matter you stole it, but that you damaged someone.

    I liked the parallel with lying, but it’s also interesting to compare it with name telling(?, you know, what kids and politicians do), or spreading false rumors…. trust indeed might get close to the problem here…

    1.http://news.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/10/23/2020223&from=rss

  • Nice piece! Now my comments on FF feel even more stupid … :)

    Two guys were recently convicted in The Netherlands for stealing electronic goods… [1] Electronic stuff is indeed never scarce… but if taking it damages the one who owned it, in any way, it is does not really matter you stole it, but that you damaged someone.

    I liked the parallel with lying, but it’s also interesting to compare it with name telling(?, you know, what kids and politicians do), or spreading false rumors…. trust indeed might get close to the problem here…

    1.http://news.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/10/23/2020223&from=rss

  • Hi Eric,

    With copyright violations I think the differences to “stealing” are more important than the similarities. And I think the differences are more important.

    I think the correct and useful way of thinking of the possible damage that copyright violations do, right now is the somewhat elusive damage of “increased uncertainty and unmet expectations”.

    Current copyright law gives an expectation of per-use compensation to creators. This expectation is unmet if a work is used without compensation. And some may find they overinvested in creating some copyrighted work if they invested a lot and earned less than expected. These two situations can be somewhat serious.

    However, with illegal digital copying any damage is never from loosing the object as is the damage from having something stolen. With copying no object is lost.

    Best,
    Anders

  • Hi Eric,

    With copyright violations I think the differences to “stealing” are more important than the similarities. And I think the differences are more important.

    I think the correct and useful way of thinking of the possible damage that copyright violations do, right now is the somewhat elusive damage of “increased uncertainty and unmet expectations”.

    Current copyright law gives an expectation of per-use compensation to creators. This expectation is unmet if a work is used without compensation. And some may find they overinvested in creating some copyrighted work if they invested a lot and earned less than expected. These two situations can be somewhat serious.

    However, with illegal digital copying any damage is never from loosing the object as is the damage from having something stolen. With copying no object is lost.

    Best,
    Anders

  • And I think the differences are more _interesting_.

  • And I think the differences are more _interesting_.

  • Here is how I view it. Use of something on the web without attribution in some way = possibly some form of stealing, depending on the “rules” associated with the object. Use of something on the web with attribution in some way (even if the attribution is really very slight, like a link to some site) = not stealing, but might be some sort of breach of conduct of some kind. This is not to say that all use without attribution is stealing as I think how something is use is important too, but no attribution is riskier and ickier in my mind than use with attribution.

    Or another way of saying this – If the company had said “We love this logo and we are using it here” I would have not said anything (that is, if they made some effort at attribution). Or if they had used the logo but it had been for a different use, like just as part of their web site or a blog post, then I would not have said anything. But to take someone else’s art, and to use it without attribution for one’s company logo, that to me had crossed some sort of line.

  • Here is how I view it. Use of something on the web without attribution in some way = possibly some form of stealing, depending on the “rules” associated with the object. Use of something on the web with attribution in some way (even if the attribution is really very slight, like a link to some site) = not stealing, but might be some sort of breach of conduct of some kind. This is not to say that all use without attribution is stealing as I think how something is use is important too, but no attribution is riskier and ickier in my mind than use with attribution.

    Or another way of saying this – If the company had said “We love this logo and we are using it here” I would have not said anything (that is, if they made some effort at attribution). Or if they had used the logo but it had been for a different use, like just as part of their web site or a blog post, then I would not have said anything. But to take someone else’s art, and to use it without attribution for one’s company logo, that to me had crossed some sort of line.

  • Jon, I don’t disagree with anything you are saying here at all, except that I think the word “stealing” isn’t helpful. It is the lack of attribution that is the problem, and the lack of respect for the licence. What I take from what you’re saying is that the copying per se isn’t the problem – which is what I was trying to get at.

    Where I disagree slightly is that you are concerned with how it was re-used and what for. Now Ricardo is clearly within his rights to object, because the image is copyright, but my wider point was that if you feel that re-use should in general be allowed that you can’t pick and choose. It’s a bit like free speech in that respect. You can say people should be respectful of the wishes of authors (within some vague bounds of “reasonableness”) but I think being proscriptive in a legalistic way isn’t helpful. This at core is the argument for the value of community norms versus precise licences – it is the spirit that is important not the letter.

    We all agree that they did something bad, I am trying to figure out how to be precise about what it was that was bad about it, given that I generally beleive that re-use is a good thing. As you say, it crossed some sort of line – just trying to get clear in my head where that line is and why.

  • Jon, I don’t disagree with anything you are saying here at all, except that I think the word “stealing” isn’t helpful. It is the lack of attribution that is the problem, and the lack of respect for the licence. What I take from what you’re saying is that the copying per se isn’t the problem – which is what I was trying to get at.

    Where I disagree slightly is that you are concerned with how it was re-used and what for. Now Ricardo is clearly within his rights to object, because the image is copyright, but my wider point was that if you feel that re-use should in general be allowed that you can’t pick and choose. It’s a bit like free speech in that respect. You can say people should be respectful of the wishes of authors (within some vague bounds of “reasonableness”) but I think being proscriptive in a legalistic way isn’t helpful. This at core is the argument for the value of community norms versus precise licences – it is the spirit that is important not the letter.

    We all agree that they did something bad, I am trying to figure out how to be precise about what it was that was bad about it, given that I generally beleive that re-use is a good thing. As you say, it crossed some sort of line – just trying to get clear in my head where that line is and why.

  • Well Cameron I get what you are saying and I am fine with not using the word stealing but I am not sure I agree with some of your positions on this. In particular, I think how something is used is important in these types of cases since this material was not placed in the public domain with no restrictions. For example, if someone were to take this logo and use it for a tattoo, I do not think anyone would complain even if it was not attributed. But taking it for one’s company logo, with neither permission nor attribution, is more of a problem. It is specifically more of a problem because of how it was used. Now, if something was in the public domain, and completely open, then the freedom of speech analogy works. But for non public domain material, how something is used is important.

  • Well Cameron I get what you are saying and I am fine with not using the word stealing but I am not sure I agree with some of your positions on this. In particular, I think how something is used is important in these types of cases since this material was not placed in the public domain with no restrictions. For example, if someone were to take this logo and use it for a tattoo, I do not think anyone would complain even if it was not attributed. But taking it for one’s company logo, with neither permission nor attribution, is more of a problem. It is specifically more of a problem because of how it was used. Now, if something was in the public domain, and completely open, then the freedom of speech analogy works. But for non public domain material, how something is used is important.