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The joy of the public domain

When Doc Searls and I published our New Clues, we put it into the public domain. Even two months later, it feels good. In fact, seeing it reprinted in its entirety on someone else’s site fills me with an irrational exuberance.

Normally we would have put it under a Creative Commons BY license that entitles anyone to reuse it in whole or in part so long as they attribute it to us. CC BY is great. It takes the “#1. Ask permission” step out of the process by which what you write can be absorbed by your culture. Or anyone’s culture.

The public domain is different. A CC-BY license keeps a work copyrighted, but permits use without first asking permission. Works in the public domain are not copyrighted. Ok, so it’s more complex than that, but that’s basically it. A work in the public domain is like a folk song: you can sing it, you can change the words, you can record it and charge for the recording, you can print the lyrics on the front of your ice cream containers. You can even claim that you wrote it, although that would be wrong of you.

In practical terms, putting New Clues into the public domain [here’s how] really doesn’t do much that CC BY doesn’t do. Yes, someone could reprint our public domain document without crediting Doc and me, but they could do that with CC BY also — we’d have the right to insist that they provide attribution, but Doc and I are likely to use moral suasion in either case, by which I mean that we’d write a polite email to the evil doer. So, pragmatically, there isn’t much difference.

So why does putting it into the public domain make me happier? I get as close to smiling as my stony visage permits when I see a site that’s copied and pasted the whole thing. It makes it feel that what Doc and I wrote was really about what it says and less about what the writing says about Doc and me. The focus is where it should be.

And it feels deeply good to know that we have created something that can spread as far and deeply into the culture — and thus into people’s lives — as our culture wants. The only barriers are those of interest. And we’re not going to try to tease you with a snippet, with a taste. Not interested? Fine. It’s still there for anyone who is.

I expressed this to Peter Suber, who is dedicated full time to expanding the sphere and influence of Open Access works. Peter pointed out that my reaction rests in part on the privileged position I occupy: I can do some writing for free, and because Doc and I are known a bit within the domain of people who blab about the Internet, there’s a disincentive for people who might want to pass off our words as our own. If we were, say, unknown high school students it’d be easier for someone to get away with crudely plagiarizing our work. True enough.

Even so, putting work into the public domain feels good. I recommend you try it.


Peter Hirtle points out that Creative Commons 0 isn’t exactly the same as public domain, although functionally it’s identical. The whole question of trying to eliminate all copyright interests in a work is vexed. Peter points here for details and evidence of the complexity of the issue. Thanks, Peter!

3 Responses to “The joy of the public domain”

  1. Love this part: “It makes it feel that what Doc and I wrote was really about what it says and less about what the writing says about Doc and me. The focus is where it should be.”

    Here’s a quick restatement of my point. Some authors need attribution more than others. Among those who need it more than you and Doc are not just high school students, but junior faculty, and even senior faculty and established authors, who don’t have your reputations.

    There are two wonderful things here: first, that you and Doc put New Clues into the public domain, and second (as you point out) that one can stop short of the public domain, and use CC-BY, without interfering with open access in the slightest.

  2. Great stuff and well done you (and Doc).
    But how does the labourer get paid?
    Like you, I’m old and grey and can afford to do this. What about people starting on their careers that need to put food on the table?

  3. Well done. I’d be interested if after a longer time, perhaps years, you feel (of course there is no experiment in this instance, though I’d love to see ones designed to test various intuitions about licensing that people argue so ardently about) that releasing unconditionally made any practical difference to how New Clues was used.

    I dislike Peter Suber’s point as it feels to me that it promotes the idea that the private property regime of copyright has anything to offer to academics other than individual and collective mind-rot (individual because copyright is a rabbit hole filled with crap, distracting specialists from their specialties, collective due to well documented harms to preservation, access, etc). Has copyright enforcement ever been used to force giving credit to relatively unknown academics? Copying and thus copyright usually isn’t pertinent to the currency of the trade, citation. What am I missing?

    (I admit this is a question of very narrow interest and import. I congratulate and thank all who publish under any semi-open license, or even gratis, having been slowly persuaded over the years by Harnad’s argument that near universal gratis access is what is required to disrupt the dominant economic arrangements. Meanwhile, folks who claim there is additional benefit to libre, even unconditional, terms, including my sometimes hypocritical self, have plenty of such material on which to build tools that actually demonstrate such benefit, rather than hectoring people about whether their chosen terms are truly open or not.)

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