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July 1, 2016

Will blockchain kill culture?

Peter Brantley [@naypinya] has posted an important and succinct warning about the effect blockchain technology may have on culture: by making the mechanism of trust cheap, transparent, and more reliable, blockchain could destroy the ambiguity that culture needs in order to thrive. Peter’s post is clearly thought and powerfully put.

Pardon me while I agree with him, including about blockchain’s positive promise.

Culture is the ultimate analog phenomenon, even when it’s communicated digitally, for it is only culture to the extent to which people—we—make it our own. We understand our lives and our world through culture. If we can’t appropriate it, re-express it, and re-use it, culture simply dies.

As Peter says, blockchain could perfect the system of tracking and control, leading us further into the tragic error of thinking that ideas and culture are property. Property has boundaries and borders that can be precisely demarcated and can be defended. Culture by definition does not. Blockchain technology can further the illusion that culture is property.

While blockchain will have a positive, transformative effect on systems where trust is valuable and expensive, it almost inevitably will also be used to impose restrictions on the appropriation of culture that lets culture thrive. If so, I expect we’ll see the same sort of response that we’ve already seen to the Internet’s inherent transparency—the transparency that has simultaneously made it the liberator of culture and the surveillor’s wet dream: We will route around it with some degree of success. And we will—I hope— continue to encourage an ethos of sharing in which creators explicitly exempt their works from the system of copyright totalitarianism.

The license you adopt will be your uniform in the coming culture wars. It already is.

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February 26, 2015

Literature and Medicine: The syllabus

The superb novelist and teacher Meredith Sue Willis, who is also my sister-in-law, is teaching a course at a local Veterans Administration hospital on literature and medicine. It’s taught to hospital staff after work in the hospital.

Here’s the syllabus, which Sue has put under a Creative Commons license (which is where all syllabi belong, amirite?). It looks like a great set of readings organized around important topics. Isn’t it awesome that we can get curated collections like these from which we can learn and explore?

In fact, it prompted me to start reading The Young Lions, which so far I’m glad I’m doing. Thanks, Sue!

(Ack. I forgot that Sue told me about this because she’s using in the course something I wrote. So I am inadvertently logrolling. But sincerely!)


February 19, 2015

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!


January 30, 2013

The lyrics to the latest BradSucks album

Brad Sucks’ latest album, Guess Who’s a Mess, is dark, funny, witty, creatively produced, CreativeCommonsed, and totally home-made by a one-man band. You ought to buy it.

I asked Brad for a pointer to the lyrics, and he instead sent me an unpolished version. I’m just now getting around to posting them. Here they are.

So download the album, or get it on iTunes or Spotify, give it a listen, and let Brad know that you love him.

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July 24, 2012

[preserve] Michael Carroll on copyright and deigital preservation

Michael Carroll, from American University Washington College of Law, is talking about “Copyright and Digital Preservation: The Role of Open Licenses.” (Michael is on the board of Creative Commons.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Michael begins with a comparison to environmentalism: Stewardship of valuable resources, and long-term planning. There are cognitive challenges, and issues in providing institutional incentives. (He recommends sucking in as much data as possible, and worrying about adding the metadata later, perhaps through crowdsourcing.)

Michael notes that copyright used to be an opt-in and opt-out system; you had to register, and deposit a copy. Then you had to publish with a ©; anything published before 1989 that doesn’t have the © is in the public domain. You had to renew after 28 years, and the majority of copyrights (60%) were not renewed. We therefore had a growing public domain.

The court in Golan upheld Congress’ right to restore copyright for works published outside the US. This puts the public domain at risk, he says. He also points to the Hathi case in which they’ve been sued for decisions they made about orphan works. There is a dangerous argument being made there that if archiving occurs within the library space, fair use goes away. The legal environment is thus unstable.

Now that copyright is automatic and lasts for 70 years after the author’s death, managing the rights in order to preserve the content is fraught with difficulty.

He reminds us that making a copy to preserve the work is unlikely to have market harm to the copyright owner, and thus ought to be legal under fair use, Michael says. “You ought to have a bias toward believing you have a Fair Use right to preserve things.”

He asks: “Can the preservation community organize itself to be the voice of tomorrow’s users on issues of copyright policy and copyright estate planning?” For orphan works, copyright term shortening, exceptions to DRM rules, good practices open licensing in the long term…

And he asks: How can you get the FBs and Googles et al. to support long-term preservation? Michael suggests marking things that already in the public domain as being in the public domain. Otherwise, the public domain is invisible. And think about “springing” licenses, e.g. an open license that only goes into effect after a set time or under a particular circumstance.

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December 20, 2010

Support Creative Commons

Creative Commons is good for the ecology. It makes it easier for creators to let people use their work without having to worry about a copyright goon squad showing up with truncheons…all within the copyright framework. CC needs some money. Now would be an extraordinarily good time to donate, what with the tax clock clicking both in the CC offices and in yours.


July 28, 2010

What does non-commercial mean?

Slashdot has an interesting discussion of a question I’ve often wondered about: What does non-commercial mean in a Creative Commons license? If your blog runs some ads, does that mean you can’t use a photo CC-ed for non-commercial use? CC-friendly BoingBoing is the possible offender in this case.

BoingBoing has removed the image to respect the author’s wishes, and has posted a brief notice acknowledging ambiguity about “non-commercial.” I think that’s the right way to handle it. But I’d love more clarity about this. I’d be fine with commercial entities using a photo I CC’ed, so long as they weren’t directly making money from it, because I think the culture of sharing is improved with that policy. But, it is a knottier problem than it would be if CC were more explicit about what the intended norms were for commercial use.

[Later that day:] Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing responded to my tweeting of the Slashdot discussion with three tweets:

Slashdot post is fake. Did you know the photographer is a flickr friend of @doctorow’s and namechecks him in the photo?

the post by the slashdot anonymous troll is NOT by the proprietor of the image. But by a troll.

They’re trolling because the very post was written by Cory, a longtime CC activist, & post said “I’m going offline for a month”

Thanks, Xeni


July 13, 2010

Lessig vs. ASCAP, Smackdown between the Lions!

Larry Lessig has responded to ASCAP’s near-total misrepresentation(1 2) of Creative Commons with a clear explanation, and a challenge to debate the president of ASCAP at NY Public Library. (You can support CC here.)

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May 10, 2010

Dan Gillmor forced to choose between traditional publishing and a CC license. Guess which he chooses?

Dan Gillmor got an offer from a publisher for his “Mediactive” book (“a user’s guide to democratized media”), but the publisher wouldn’t agree to publish it under a Creative Commons license. So, he’s self-publishing it at Lulu. He’s doing this on principle, but also for pragmatic reasons:

… the main reason I’m still getting royalty checks for We the Media is that the book has been available as a free download since the day it went into bookstores. Had we not published it that way, given the indifference (at best) shown by American newspapers and magazines, the book would have sunk without a trace.

Of course, Dan’s motive is not primarily financial:

…this isn’t just a book, at least not way traditional publishers understand books even as they dabble online.

To publishers, books are items they manufacture and send out in trucks. Or else they’re computer files to be rented to publishers’ customers, or customers of Amazon, Apple and other companies that use proprietary e-reading software to lock the work down in every possible way. In both cases, publishers crave being the gatekeepers.

Mediactive aims to be a multi-faceted project. Over the next few years, I hope to experiment in lots of media formats and styles with the ideas here. And — this is key — I also plan to experiment with it in the broader context of the emerging ecosystem of ideas.

Dan reports that the folks at (where — product placement alert — you can get a copy of my young adult book, My $100 Million Secret — are being helpful and creative about supporting books in the new ecosystem. Plus, it’ll be available at Lulu this summer, instead of the year it would have taken to get it onto shelves via the traditional route.

Since Dan is one of the most admirable people around, It would be fun as a community to make his book a success in every way, from spreading its ideas to selling a whole bunch of copies…


March 9, 2010

[berkman] John Wilbanks on making science generative

John Wilbanks of Creative Commons (and head of Science Commons) is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk about the threats to science’s generativity. He takes Jonathan Zittrain‘s definition of generativity: “a system’s capacity to produced unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

[NOTE: Ethan Zuckerman has posted his far superior bloggage]

ScienceCommons tries to spark the sort of creativity and innovation in science that we find in the broader cultural Net. Scientists often resist the factors that have increased generativity in other realms: Science isn’t very accessible, it’s hard to master, and it’s not very transferable because the sciences exist as guild-disciplines. He says MIT had to build a $400M building to put scientists into the same room so they’d collaborate. There’s a tension, he says, between getting credit for your work and sharing your work. People think that it ought to be easy to build a science commons, but it’s not.

To build a common and increase generativity, John looks at three key elements: data, tools, and text. First, he looks at these from the standpoint of law. Text is copyrighted, but we can change the law and we can use Creative Commons. Tools include contracts and patents. Contracts govern the moving of ideas around, and they are between institutions, not between scientists. Data is mainly governed by secrecy.

The resistance turns out not to be from the law but from incentives, infrastructure, and institutions. E.g. the National Institutes of Health Public Access requires scientists to make their work available on line within 12 months if the scientist has taken any NIH money. Before it was required, only 4% of scientists posted their work. Now it’s up over 70%, and it’s rising. Without this, scientists are incented to withhold info until the moment of maximum impact.

To open up data, you need incentives and infrastructure if you’re going to make it useful to others. People need incentives to label their data, put it into useful formats, to take care of the privacy issues, to carefully differentiate attribution and citation (copy vs. inspiration). So far, data doesn’t have the right set of incentives.

To open up tools, we’re talking about physical stuff, e.g., recombinant DNA. Scientists don’t get funded to make copies. “The resistance is almost fractal,” he says, at each level of opening up these materials.

We need a “domain name system for data” if we’re going to get Net effects. But there’s no accepted data infrastructure on the Web for doing this, unlike Google’s role for text pages.

Science is heading back to the garage, in the Eric Von Hippel sense. [He’s sitting next to me at the table!] You can buy a gene sequencer on eBay for under $1,000. You can go to People around the world are doing this. In SF, a group is doing DIY sequencing, creating toxin detectors, etc. The price of parts and materials are dropping the way memory prices and printer prices did. We need an open system, including a registry, in part because that’s the most responsive way to respond to bad genes made by bad people.

“PC or TiVo for science?” John asks. PC’s are ugly, but they give us more control over our tools and will let us innovate faster.

Q: [salil] You focus on experimental sciences. Are these obstacles present in mathematical and computer sciences? Data and tools are not a big part of math. Not making one’s work available right now in my field counts as a disadvantage. Specialization is an issue (what you call a guild)…
A: Math and physics are at the extreme of the gradient of openness, while chemistry probably sits at the other end. The lower the cost of publishing, the more disclosure there is. So, in math there isn’t as much institutional, systemic resistance because you don’t need a lot of support from an institution to be a great mathematician.
A: Guilds serve a purpose. But when you think about the competency of a system overall, it comes from the abstraction of expertise into tools. In the research sciences, microspecialization has come at the expense of abstraction. But it’s easier and easier to put knowledge into the tools because we can put lots into computers; that won’t revolutionize math, but it will have more of an effect on sciences with physical components. Science Commons stays away from math because it’s working.

Q: [Eric Von Hippel] State of patents?
A: Most of the time in science, patents are trading cards; they’re about leverage and negotiations than about keeping people from using them. If we think about data as prior art, if we funnel it correctly, it becomes harder to get stupid patents. Biotech patents should be dealt with through an robust public domain strategy. “We tend to get wound up about IP, but then you go out in the field and people are just doing stuff.” Copyright is more stressful because patents time out after 20 yrs.

Q: [ethanz] Clearly, the legal response is a tiny part of a larger equation. If you were coming into it now, not trying to put forward this novel legal framework, where would you start?
A: Funders. Starting with the law lets us engage everyone in the conversation, because as the legal group we don’t create text, tools, or data. But we’re focusing on the funder-institution relation. We want funders to write clauses that reserve the right to put stuff into the commons. “If the funders mandate, the universities tend to accept.” Also, it gets easier to do high-quality research outside the big universities. Which means the small schools can do deals with the funders to make their faculty more attractive to the funder. The funder can also specify that the scientists will annotate their data. The funder has the biggest interest in making sure that science is generative.

Q: Then why aren’t funders requiring the data be open?
A: Making data legally open is easy. Making it useful to others is difficult. Curating it with enough metadata, publishing it on the Web, making it machine readable, making it persistent — none of those infrastructures exist for that, with some exceptions (e.g., the genome). So, the Web has to become capable of handling data.
Q: [ethanz] One reason that orgs like CC have been successful is that they put into law something that is a norm on the Web. Math and physics are so open is that they’re open; it’s the norm. The institutional culture within these disciplines has a lot to do with it. How do you shape norms?
A: Carolina Rossini and I have been working on a paper about the university as a curator of norms. CC lets you waive all your rights. We’ve thought about writing a series of machine readable norms like CC contracts but with no law in the middle. E.g., citation is a norm. E.g., non-endorsement is a norm that says that if you use my data, you can’t imply that I agree with you. But the norm that I should mark my data clearly, should have a persistent URL, are things laws can’t govern but should be norms. We use Eric’s ideas here. E.g., branding something with an open trademark.
A: [carolina] We need a bottom up approach based on norms and a top down approach based on law and policy. If you don’t work with both, they will clash.
A: Our lawyer Tim says that norms scale far better than the law. You can’t enforce the law all the time.

Q: [me] “Making the Web capable of handling data”? How? Semantic Web? What scale?
A: It’s a religious question. My sect says that ontologies are human. We should be using standard formats, e.g., OWL, RDF. Some ontologies will be used by communities, and if they area expressed in standard ways, they can be stitched together. From my view: name things in clear and distinct ways. 2. Put them into OWL or other languages in the correct way. 3. Let smart people who need connected data do so, and let them publish. It’ll be a mix of top down standards setting and bottom up hacking. I’m a big SemWeb fan, but I get very scared of people saying that they have THE ontology. It’ll be messy. It won’t be beautiful. The main thing is to make it easy for people to wire data sets together. Standard URIs and standard formats are the only way to do this. We’ve seen this in the life sciences. Communities that need to write big data together treat it the way Linux packages get rolled together into a release. You’ll see data distributions emerge that represent different religions. If it works, people will use it. They’ll be flame wars, license wars, and forking, and chaos, and 99% of the projects will die. You should be able to boot your databases into a single operating system that understands it.

Q: Researchers are incented to make their work available and open. Frequently, institutions get in the way of that. Are you looking at CC-style MTA’s [material transfer agreements]?
A: We published some last year. The first adopter was the Cure Huntingtons Disease and then the Personal Genome Project. We’re going to foundations. We want to get the institutions out of the way, but only the funders can change the experience. NIH requires you to provide a breeding pair of genetically altered mice, kept in a storage facility in Maine [I think]. NIH is moving away from MTAs, going with a you-agree-by-opening agreement.

Q: Privacy?
A: Big issue. Sometimes used as an excuse for not sharing data, but privacy makes the issues we’ve been talking about look simple. It’s a long-term problem. Genomes are not considered as personally identifying, although your license plate is. “There will be a reckoning.” JW’s advice: If you’re dealing with humans, be careful.

Q: Scientists are already overwhelmed by requests. More open, more tagged, means more requests.
A: Yes, we have to design with the negative impacts in mind. We need social filtering, etc. I worry about the scientist in eastern Tennessee or Botswana who’s a genius and can’t get access. If enough of the data is available, maybe you can get a community that answers many of the questions. People generally get into science because they like to talk with people. They’re more likely than most to share. But you have to make it part of the culture that it’s easy. One of the ideas behind the open source trademark concept is that you have to build up a certain amount of karma before I’ll read your email. People are the answer. Most of the time.

Q: Incentives to motivate institutions, but how incentives for individuals to move them in this direction?
A: PLOS was created because Mike Eisner was so pissed at closed journals that he created a business to compete with them. In anthropology, the Society is trying to go more closed, but groups of scientists are trying to go more open access. There’s a battle for the discipline’s soul. Individuals in these institutions are driving it. The key is to get the first big adopters going. Everyone wants to be in the top ten, especially when the first three are Harvard, Yale and MIT. American Chemistry Society is not going to go open any time soon because they make lots of money selling abstracts.

Q: [eric von hippel] I hope you realize how wonderful you all are.


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