Copyright provides the owners of intellectual property a variety of rights and protections. We often think first and foremost of copyright as being tied to earning money on the sale of works, either written or performed. This is how most people interact with copyright, since they are consumers of content rather than producers of content . . . for sale. I added the last two words with emphasis because copyright applies equally to content that is not for sale, as most readers of this blog are aware. The same understanding is not true of the vast majority of people who regularly write blog entries, post pictures to Instagram or Flickr, or contribute to the wealth of other social media sites. I’ll return to this point a bit later.
Recently, I was asked about my own organization’s copyright policy and was asked to defend the restrictions we place, particularly, as they relate to reuse and remixing. Below is some of my response:
There is a strong reason for standards not being “truly open” by your definition. In the standards world, if everyone were to remix or redevelop standards however they saw fit, than there wouldn’t be a core thing that could be called a standard. One could think of a variety of ways in which this create problem. For example in our community, one can claim compliance with for example DOIs or ISBN numbers, but without complying with the standard, there is no assurance of uniqueness, nor its functionality in the larger DOI or ISBN systems. Standards can be flexible, or more lax, but all should have minimum levels of compliance to ensure both interoperability and trustworthiness. Furthermore, if anyone were able to re-draft a standard without the controlling involvement of the community, there could very easily be forking and lead to non-compatible solutions. This would be of particular concern if the standards development organization were to release a non-backwards-compatible new version of a standard.
Even the W3C and IETF, which are notoriously open, still retain control over the baseline recommendations. Specifically, W3C will not allow modification or derivative works, republication of excerpts or un-approved translations. IETF RFC’s are copyrighted with “All rights reserved.”
Of course, such copyright terms do not preclude extensions and further development are out of the question. Take Dublin Core for example. It has been extended tremendously, with various profiles, for a variety of communities and needs. That doesn’t mean that the base standard of DC has been changed.
I often joke that standards emergencies are rare, but this is not necessarily the case for standards that have safety implications. Think about the potential dangers if people don’t adhere to building codes, water purity specifications, or airline manufacturing standards. Additionally, standards get regularly reviewed and updated. If someone were to republish a specification and then not publish the updated versions, there could be both confusion and interoperability issues. Or in the case of the safety standards above, some critical new safety requirement could be missed.
While I speak here specifically about publications in my own domain — standards — one can think of a variety of other fields where unfettered reuse, republication and translations could create significant problems or dangers. One might envision the same problems occurring with health publications or data, economic data, political information, or a range of contentious or potentially dangerous information if it were available for unfettered reuse or republication.
Earlier this week, PLOS, SPARC, and the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) collaborated to develop a guide to the spectrum of open access options entitled How Open Is It? The current draft is open for public comment until Monday, October 8, 2012. The main component of the document is a table listing the various types of openness attributes that a content object may have. According to the document, these include: readership rights; reuse rights; copyrights ownership; author posting rights; reposting rights; machine readability rights. Each of these rights are then described on a scale of “open” versus “closed” access.
This document helps to clarify the variety of complex levels by which something could be available or reusable, which vary tremendously by people who use the term “open access.” The variety of meanings of “open access” has been a point of confusion, and defining these terms is a useful piece of work. Developing a baseline terminology the community can use to clarify exactly what is meant by “open” would be a useful contribution to the discussion. There is also some potential work about communicating the metadata related to open access currently being explored among a group of publishing and open access. More information about that will follow in another upcoming post.
This OA guide is aimed toward a wide audience of researchers, authors, and policy-makers. Your feedback will help us more precisely define OA across a number of categories. The goals of the guide are to:
• Move the conversation from “Is It Open Access?” to “How Open Is It?”
• Clarify the definition of OA
• Standardize terminology
• Illustrate a continuum of “more open” versus “less open”
• Enable people to compare and contrast publications and policies
• Broaden the understanding of OA to a wider audience
Whatever the outcome and shape of this document, there does need to be a better understanding of the nuance of copyright control and the value of different levels for different purposes. Few authors or content creators really understand these nuances or the implications of their decisions regarding the rights they retain or, more often, sign away. This is particularly true for people who contribute content onto social media.
One interesting story in this regard relates to my father-in-law and some photos that he posted onto Flickr under a CC-0 license. A few of the pictures that he posted were used by NBC as a background image for their Olympics coverage. My father-in-law is quite a proponent for open content distribution, so he was pleased with the “Olympic win,” as he described it on his blog. There are a few downsides for this, though he doesn’t necessarily see it this way. The first is the fact that he wasn’t paid for this work. The second is that NBC could have used the images in a way that was affiliated with a cause, or in a manner that was inappropriate (although it’s hard to see how one could do that with ice crystals, it could have been different if there were images of people or other art). Finally, there is the larger cultural issue of the availability of so much free content. Each time I am approached about the reuse of one of my own images on Flickr, I consider all of the stock photographers who are finding it harder and harder to make a living because I, and many millions more like me, freely share photographs. I am generally happy about the reuse, but I am not trying to sell my images – though it would be nice if I could! The same is true of the many variety of other content people share on social media sites. Ownership rules that apply to that content isn’t always as clear as one might think.
Generally, there isn’t a good understanding by the overall community about these copyright issues. This is just as true among the people for whom scholarly communications is a key part of their careers as it is for the general populous. While someone might view open redistribution or reuse, remixing, or adapting work as a good thing, there are a variety of potential reasons why one might not want that to take place. Often, content creators are not as imaginative about the use and application of their works as others may be (a point proponents often make to reinforce the value of open remixing). Frequently, one might not understand the implications of the decision taken to freely distribute something until long after the decision was taken to release a work without restrictions. This could be a benefit or a detriment to the original copyright holder. Similarly, society as a whole might not realize the benefits or detriments until much later. And unfortunately, some decisions can’t be undone.