Guest Post: Jan Velterop on open-access licences
January 31, 2014
[Introduction from Mike. I’m on the OKFN’s open-access mailing list, where we’re currently embroiled in a rather tedious reiteration of the debate about the merits of the various open-access licences. On Monday, veteran of the OA wars Jan Velterop posted a message so perfect that I immediately asked him for permission to re-publish it as a guest post here on SV-POW!. He kindly agreed, so over to Jan for the rest of this post. The only changes I’ve made are to highlight what I consider the key passages.]
I’ve been following this discussion with increasing bemusement. Frankly, it’s getting ridiculous, at least in my humble opinion. A discussion such as this one about licensing and copyright only serves to demonstrate that copyright, once conceived as a way to stimulate and enable science and the arts, has degenerated into a way to frustrate, derange and debilitate knowledge exchange.
I’m not the first one to point out that absolutely anything, under any copyright licence or none, could be abused for evil purposes or, in more mild circumstances, lead to misunderstandings and accidental abuse. I agree with all those who said it.
The issue here is what science and scientific results stand for. Their purpose is emphatically not “to be copyrightable items”. Copyright, invented to combat commercial abuse, has become a means of commercial abuse. The purpose of science and scientific results is to enrich the world’s knowledge. Any commercial advantage – appropriate for industrially funded research – can be had by 1) keeping results secret (i.e. not publishing them), or 2) getting a patent. Science, particularly modern science, is nothing without a liberal exchange of ideas and information.
Ideally, scientific publications are not copyrightable at all, and community standards take care of proper acknowledgement. We don’t live in an ideal world, so we have to get as close as we can to that ideal, and that is by ameliorating the insidious pernicious effects of copyright with CC-Zero and CC-BY licences.
The existence of the NC rider or stipulation for CC licences is unfortunate and quite damaging. Mainly because of the vagueness and ambiguity of what ‘commercial use’ means. Ideas in published articles can be freely used for commercial purposes of any kind, as ideas are not copyrightable. Only “the way the ideas have been formulated” is covered by copyright, and thus by the NC clause in copyright licences. In my interpretation that means that most usage of published material that is not a straightforward selling of text or images can be freely done. But that’s my interpretation. And that’s exactly where it rubs, because all the NC clause does is introduce hypothetical difficulties and liabilities. As a result of which, NC practically means: “stay away from using this material, because you never know with all those predatory legal eagles around”. In other words, it’s virtually useless for modern, sophisticated scientific knowledge discovery, which doesn’t just consist of reading papers any longer, but increasingly relies on the ability to machine-process large amounts of relevant information, as human ocular reading of even a fraction of the information is not possible anymore. At least not in most fast-moving areas of the sciences. Read this article, or similar ones, if you want to be convinced: On the impossibility of being expert, BMJ 2010; 341 (Published 14 December 2010 – unfortunately behind a paywall).
The taxpayer angle (“must be open because the taxpayer paid for it”), leading to Kent Andersonian notions of knowledge protectionism (“results of research paid by US taxpayers should not be available to non-US citizens unless they pay for it”), is a most unfortunate, visceral and primitive reaction and a complete red herring. For many reasons, not least because the taxpayer, or vicariously the taxman, isn’t the party that pockets any money payed for paywalled information. Besides, how far do you go? Americans not being allowed to stay alive due to a cure that was developed with public money in Switzerland unless they pay through the nose for it to the Swiss tax authorities? The “as-long-as-I-am-well-the-rest-of-you-can-go-to-hell” personality disorder. The whole idea is so against the ethos of science that those even thinking in that direction must be taken to be utterly and entirely unsuitable to any role in the scientific community.
Access control and restriction via copyright was at best a necessary evil in the print era; the ‘necessary’, though, has disappeared in the web environment.
Have a nice day!