Getting wired: Seeding the creative commons

Online initiatives are increasing the amount of intellectual property in the public domain.

Last week I wrote about the defeat suffered in the US Supreme Court by a group trying to reverse the trend for a continuing, progressive extension of copyright.

Although this case was in the US, the global nature of intellectual property - to say nothing of the internet - means that what happens there is bound to have an impact elsewhere in the world.

Legal principles aside, the issue is crucially important to the internet because the net provides the perfect medium for accessing materials that are in the public domain.

Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that until the internet came along, the right to access public domain works was more theoretical than real, and depended on publishers - such as Dover Publications and Eldritch Press, two of the plaintiffs in the Eldred case discussed last week - reprinting material.

Now, though, all that is needed is a scanner and some OCR software and any work in the public domain can be converted into a text file and made freely available online.

This is precisely what the great Project Gutenberg has been doing for more than 30 years. One of the most interesting recent developments is the Distributed Proofreaders project. Although not an official part of Project Gutenberg, it represents an important extension of it. As the FAQ explains, the idea is to use the distributed power of the online population to check the OCR files of texts that are being added to Project Gutenberg. Since the work involved is parcelled out one page at a time, the burden on individuals is small.

Of course, this is one of the principles behind open source software, which builds on a distributed development process and allows many people to make small contributions that cumulatively turn into big projects. Not surprisingly, then, the Free Software Foundation is also interested in helping to make more texts available, and has crafted the GNU Free Documentation Licence to this end.

As its name suggests, this licence is intended for technical documentation, and so is inappropriate for many materials. A more ambitious project aims to craft a range of licences that provide various options for those who wish to apply a rather less selfish form of copyright than that currently deployed.

The name of the endeavour is Creative Commons, a reference to the idea that there is, or should be, an intellectual equivalent to the commons - land held in common for the good of the community. One of the key figures behind Creative Commons is Lawrence Lessig, the lead lawyer in the Eldred copyright case.

There is a FAQ, some examples of why new licences can be useful, and a list of projects. There is a page that helps people choose an appropriate licence, and an interesting licence called the founders' copyright.

This is a pointed reference to first copyright law in the US, which gave monopoly rights for just 14 years, with the option of renewing the monopoly for another 14 years. The technical publisher O'Reilly has pledged to adopt this licence for some of its books.

More radically, a group of leading biologists, fed up with the way journals have demanded the copyright when their work is published, has created what it calls the Public Library of Science, which will be launching several new journals where content is always freely available online, and the scientists retain copyright.

The established commercial publishers seem, at last, to be getting the message: the prestigious scientific journal Nature has recently announced that authors will no longer be asked to sign away their copyright.

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