Mar 16

One of the poster issues for Web Science is the Web’s impact on intellectual property, especially copyright. The Web emerged from an open environment characterised by government-funded research teams, participating in large-scale international collaborations and inevitably promoted an considerably more open stance than our society had experienced. The Web itself is built from open source, interoperable software designed for open knowledge exchange and has triggered the formation of many “open content” initiatives: open access, open data, open educational resources, creative commons, scientific commons etc.

However, this attitude to open content is at odds with the market-based knowledge-trading paradigm (book and DVD purchases, journal, magazine and TV subscriptions) that has been the dominant model for information transfer in society. So how do content owners thrive in a world where content distribution is free? What role copyright (which allows only the holder to make copies) when copying is fundamental to every digital activity.

Lawrence Lessig recently wrote about the need to come to a new balance between “open” and “traded” material, or at least open and traded uses of material.

The law of copyright is shot through with balances struck to protect markets and to limit markets. Two hundred years of legislation shows a constant effort to identify and to secure the places where commercial values should reign and the places where they should be constrained.

We need a renewed effort to strike this balance through interests that recognize the good in both sides. It would be a mistake to destroy new markets by eliminating copyright protection where it would do good. It would also be a mistake to assume that all access to culture should be governed by markets, regardless of the effect it has on access to our past. In the most abstract sense, we need to decide what kinds of access should be free. And we need to craft the law to assure that freedom.

I have no clear view. I only know that the two extremes that are before us would, each of them, if operating alone, be awful for our culture. The one extreme, pushed by copyright abolitionists, that forces free access on every form of culture, would shrink the range and the diversity of culture. I am against abolitionism. And I see no reason to support the other extreme either–pushed by the content industry–that seeks to license every single use of culture, in whatever context. That extreme would radically shrink access to our past.

Instead we need an approach that recognizes the errors in both extremes, and that crafts the balance that any culture needs: incentives to support a diverse range of creativity, with an assurance that the creativity inspired remains for generations to access and understand.

Lawrence Lessig, For the Love of Culture: Google, copyright, and our future. The New Republic Magazine. Jan 2010

Lawrence restricts his discussion to culture in the sense of “the past”, but we are interested in a broader definition of cultural knowledge and cultural artefacts. How do private property and public dissemination go hand in hand?