Government Works in the Public Domain – All Your Tax-paid Content are Belong to Us

On: November 10, 2010
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About Morgan Currie
I’m an American with eight years of experience in video production, but today I'm a student in Amsterdam, thinking a lot about mediums, the Media, technology, and humans & machines communicating in their specific, special ways. I'm finding methods to give these thoughts a space of their own.


The Free Culture Research Conference last month 8-10 October (2010) devoted one of its panels to the notion that governments should explicitly release public materials – data, photographs, film – to the public domain. The moderator was Mathias Schindler from Wikimedia Germany, a self-described ‘content liberator.’ Wikimedia, he explained, focuses on putting works by government into public domain from the start. Examples of Wikimedia’s success can be found in Israel, which released a large part of its image database to the public. This was subtly revelatory to me – that a non-profit foundation began as a free-content, openly-editable online encyclopedia is making an impact on national-level policy.

Paul Keller from Kennisland spoke first about his involvement with Creative Commons. Keller played a major role in convincing the Dutch government to release its website content under the most liberal license available, the CC0. In 31 March 2010 the Dutch government planned an overhaul of its entire website, an occasion Keller called a very rare tabular rasa for a fresh copyright policy. The point of CC0 is to address two levels of government information: 1) public laws and decrees not protected by copyright at all, and 2) all the rest that are not copyright protected unless the government claims copyright. CC0, then, is a ‘not-claim for copyright’, making it expressly clear that content is available without restrictions. As Keller put it, “CC0 is not a license choice but a statement.”

The second speaker was Tomer Ashur from Israel Wikimedia, behind the Israeli parliament’s decision to release all images created by government officials to public domain. As Ashur described it, the government at first worried about false use of the images, loss of revenue they could have earned from licensing, and the costs of releasing and publishing the images, but in the end decided it would more likely help small businesses who pay taxes, as well as aid information delivery for the country. There’s also the obvious educational value, and the fact that it was created by taxpayer money to begin with.

Ashur also pointed out Wikipedia’s influence on public perception. Only copyright-free material can be shown on Wikipedia, which determines what an enormous international audience sees and reads. For instance, most space imagery on Wikipedia comes from US NASA. Most maps on Wikipedia come from the CIA – and those maps differ from Israel’s. Wikipedia is a powerful way to spread ideas, and keeping materials restricted from this platform is a missed opportunity. (The fear of course is that the same license that allows an image on Wikipedia permits its misuse somewhere else.) Later, someone in the audience asked, could Israel’s adopting the liberal CC0 license change the material the government creates? Interesting point, but Ashur claimed it doesn’t matter.

Finally, Mike Linksvayer from Creative Commons, USA, pointed out that while CC provides legal licenses for sharing, and certain technologies make it easier to find and research the public domain, the free culture movement and FLOSS are praiseworthy for providing definitions and a conceptual framework of culture that sets expectations for information sharing in general. Which makes the job of convincing governments to release information to the public domain that much easier.

Linksvayer also pointed out that ‘free’ itself is a cultural term with a malleable history – free software created licenses that seemed open 25 yrs ago now don’t. The continuum is incredibly nuanced – there’s default copyright vs free-to-use, meaning something is copyrighted, but you can still use it. Furthermore, what is government material? What is public? Should it include private foundations (like Wikipedia), educational and scientific material? How can we expand the definition further?

Discussion spun off from here. Keller rejoined by pointing out that even the Dutch government’s CC0 license doesn’t mean everything is available. For instance, the license doesn’t extend to anything with contested claims on authorship, such as research by external consultants. Same with video stream and images of proceedings of Dutch parliament, who have deals with TV stations that want to sell content. As Keller put it, “Once an object is embedded in a value generating process, it is harder to give it these licenses.” In Keller’s opinion, material held by public heritage organizations should also be included in the public domain. That includes public broadcast, which receives enormous amounts of public money, while its raw footage is not given back to public for experimentation and mostly goes unused.

To funnel more and more resources into the commons, one of the key motivations to convince government that it spurs economic growth – if people and businesses use these materials, they contribute their derivative revenue back to the economy. Attribution-only, non-commercial use, and share-alike are too restrictive – better to get material out there and reused in as many open circumstances as possible.

The panel ended with a provocative question – does a central government benefit more by protectively hording and licensing material, than they would by releasing it for public reuse? James Boyle produced some research on this in his book The Public Domain, but more comparative analysis seems needed between different country policies: if it’s free in the US and not in Europe, who’s generating the most value? Releasing materials to the commons at least means more people over time and space have the opportunity to produce value than if it remains Disneyfied – locked away and horded by one entity.

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