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!

Jan Velterop

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4 Responses to “Guest Post: Jan Velterop on open-access licences”

  1. Charles Oppenheim Says:

    I agree with the arguments. NC can open a can of worms, but I can also understand why it is considered to be attractive to many authors. Need some court cases to tease out what is, or is not “commercial”.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    It’s true, NC is attractive. I’ve felt it myself: as recently as September 2011, I released my annotated Tyrannosaurus skeleton under CC By-NC-SA; and back in 2007 I had a long back and forth that culminated in my not posting the various Xenoposeidon photos on Wikimedia because I refused to accept their stipulation that an NC licence couldn’t be used. (This turns out to be moot anyway, since the photos are copyright the NHM, and so not mine to donate, but I didn’t know that at the time.)

    The point is that in every instance I know of, as people have become more aware of the issues, they have moved away from NC and ND clauses, towards CC By (or even in some cases public domain, as for example in Cameron Neylon’s blog). No-one ever seems to move towards imposing more restrictions as their understanding of the issues grows.

  3. David Crotty Says:

    Hi Mike,
    There seems a continued confusion between patent and copyright. The question of “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” has nothing to do with the copyright status of the articles written about that cure, but rather relies on the patents and IP restrictions placed on the cure itself by its inventors.

    It’s important to separate out the interesting and useful reuses of the actual papers themselves (the specific words and images used to describe the research results) from the reuse of the ideas and concepts described in the papers. There are different sets of laws and funder policies that govern each. For example, even though groups like the Wellcome Trust or RCUK ask for CC-BY licenses for the papers they fund, they still allow researchers to lock up any discoveries via patents, potentially creating a situation like Jan describes above.

    Also, for the sake of transparency, is it worth adding a conflict of interest statement to a piece about removing barriers to reuse of articles by someone who is involved in commercial ventures that would benefit from not having to pay for such resources?

  4. juliusbeezer Says:

    >Need some court cases

    Because we all so enjoy an expensive bout of litigation! It is precisely the vagueness of this threat that makes the NC/C distinction so chilling and useless.

    If the proponents of open access seek to model their advocacy on the open source movement, then they should certainly note that everyone in it–from RMS to ESR–was clear all that they wanted there to be lots of businesses based on freely available open source software. Maybe we should be hoping for the same thing for scholarly articles?

    (It’s a genuine question, because scholarly articles are not software, and in any case free software businesses have perversities all of their own)


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