February 2013: The Openness Edition

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First published on ethnographymatters.net.

Last month on Ethnography Matters, we started a monthly thematic focus where each of the EM contributing editors would elicit posts about a particular theme. I kicked us off with the theme entitled ‘The Openness Edition’ where we investigated what openness means for the ethnographic community. I ended up editing some wonderful posts on the topic of openness last month – from Rachelle Annechino’s great post questioning what “informed consent” means in health research, to Jenna Burrell’s post about openaccess journals related to ethnography and Sarah Kendzior’s stimulating piece about by legitimacy and place of Internet research by anthropologists. We also had two really wonderful pieces sharing methods for more open, transparent research by Juliano Spyer (YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool) and by Jeff Hall, Elizabeth Gin and An Xiao in their inspiring piece about how they facilitated story-building exercises with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights (complete with PDF instructions!) Below is the editorial that I wrote at the beginning of the month where I try to tease out some of the complexities of my own relationship with the open access/open content movement. Comments welcome!

On Saturday the 12th of January, almost a month ago, I woke to news of Aaron Swartz’s death the previous day. In the days that followed, I experienced the mixed emotions that accompany such horrific moments: sadness for him and the pain he must have gone through in struggling with depression and anxiety, anger at those who had waged an exaggerated legal campaign against him, uncertainty as I posted about his death on Facebook and felt like I was trying to claim some part of him and his story, and finally resolution that I needed to clarify my own policy on open access. Continue reading

Has Creative Commons become ‘inevitable’?

(This is Part I of a series I’m drafting as I organise my thoughts around this topic)

Campbell's Soup Cans by Andy Warhol, 1962. Displayed in Museum of Modern Art in New York. Source: Wikipedia

I remember sitting in a Creative Commons staff meeting as a volunteer in late 2003 hearing Lawrence Lessig say that CC should be like Campbell’s Soup: we should make every possible type of license that people want. But a few years later, CC has consolidated its license offering to reflect just three license choices (do you want to allow commercial use? do you want to allow derivatives? if yes, do you want to require that those derivatives be made available under share-alike terms?). In 2007, CC ‘retired’ the Sampling License and the Developing Nations License due to low demand and, perhaps more importantly, pressure from the Free Software Foundation who complained that these were not “free” licenses since they did not permit ‘worldwide noncommercial verbatim sharing’. In around 2005/6 (there isn’t an exact date because I don’t think anyone actually made an announcement) the organisation decided not to advance the CC Education License – predominantly because certain vocal individuals believed that educational uses should be wrapped up in all CC licenses (you can find the mailing list archives from that discussion here).

CC had very rational reasons for consolidating and limiting the number of licenses offered. Licenses are complicated to understand: fewer choices mean that it’s easier not to get confused; fewer choices mean fewer products to explain and support. In my current research on the Tor project and anonymity tools I came across a wonderful paper by Roger Dingledine and Nick Matthewson describing just this tradeoff. The paper, aptly called ‘Anonymity loves company: usability and the network effect’ describes how usability affects privacy in the sense that ‘even if you were smart enough and had enough time to use every system perfectly, you would nevertheless be right to choose your system based in part on its usability for other users’. These problems of scale and usability impact a great number of online projects because they need to reduce the number of options in order to consolidate a large number of users/content, but must also ensure that there is enough diversity of options (and further options as they learn more about tackling a certain problem) to enable growing usability. Increasing options and making the network more diverse will, in turn, dilute the numbers and thus the value of the network to users, thus decreasing the numbers of users.

It is also important to understand the political landscape as the two big players in open content licenses at the time – the Free Software Foundation and Creative Commons – battled it out in a war over who would control the ultimate meaning of the term ‘openness’. CC got the idea for its licenses back in 2002 from the FSF’s GNU-GPL but injected two key ingredients into the licensing offering that the FSF hadn’t dealt with very well: 1. usability (CC made it easier to license your work and easier to discover works in the pool) and 2. choice (I mistakenly used to believe that the difference was that CC enabled users to choose their conditions while FSF had only ‘one version of freedom’ but now I recognise that the choices were just different and that CC gave a better illusion of choice than the FSF did).

In the days before Wikipedia moved from the FSF’s GNU-FDL to the CC BY SA license, the FSF was definitely in the lead of this battle. CC could show few examples of the value that comes from pooling CC-licensed materials over time into a high value collaborative product (most of their licensors were – and still are – stand-alone entities or individuals who draw successfully from the pool to create new works). By compromising with the FSF and successfully negotiating the move by Wikipedia to adopt CC licenses by making the GFDL and BY-SA licenses compatible, CC was able to gain the upper hand and radically boost its identity as the default open license provider.

The problem comes in when we start thinking that this is the only way to license materials – when it seems inevitable that this is the only way to build a space distinct from the failures of copyright on the Internet without considering the innumerable options available to builders of these kinds of products as they construct these artifacts of politics. The result is that CC starts to look like the hammer in the ‘law of the instrument‘ with the addition that when you think all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. I’m starting to see many examples of this as other standards (like html5) are starting to build in rights expression metadata, but an obvious place where this became clear was in the furore over Facebook changing their terms to “appear” (it wasn’t really the case, said Facebook) that they were taking ownership of all the material on their users’ pages in 2009.

Alongside the thousands who protested the move at the time, a group of Creative Commons volunteers started a group asking Facebook to allow Facebook users to license their content under CC. Sounds reasonable, right? Here’s some content you’ve produced – here’s a way for you to control its use. Reasonable, that is, until you start thinking about what the problem really is here. After one of the group members created a CC license widget for users to put on their pages, I put one on my page in solidarity because I felt like Facebook shouldn’t be the only one to be given a license to use my stuff. But soon afterward I took it off when I recognised that the problem had nothing to do with copy rights and everything to do with control over private information. Unlike a photograph of a tree that I took, was proud of, found useful and licensed under CC because I thought others might find useful too, the ‘content’ of my Facebook page is not really ‘content’ in the copy right sense at all. They have a totally different audience, different norms and different objectives: I’m not on stage on Facebook; I’m at a private party with my friends and co-workers. The problem that users were responding to was not the problem that Facebook was taking worldwide royalty-free license to use your work; it was the fear that your messages were out of your control, that Facebook could take them out of the context of that private party and put them on a stage somewhere. That was frightening for people because it meant that they were no longer in control of messages that were never intended on being ‘on the stage’ in the way that Creative Commons licenses help to facilitate.

Part II coming soon!

Creative Commons critiques

Question Mark Phoenix by Roy Blumenthal on Flickr CC BY SA

It still amazes me when I read academic papers where it is clear that the author hasn’t read any critiques of Creative Commons – not necessarily critiques from the content industry declaring that Creative Commons is opposed to copyright (I don’t think those exist in academic form but please let me know if you find any) but those from people who actually care about the problem that Creative Commons was started to try and solve (that copyright – especially copyright for the digital age – is broken). We need to be more critical of these solutions so that we don’t fall prey to believing that Creative Commons – the way it is designed and run – is inevitable (more on that soon).

I will keep this updated and provide summaries as I find more material. I’ll also start a Zotero group as soon as I can resolve the problem I’m having with Zotero right now so that others who are interested can share too. Herewith follows a short but powerful list:

Berry, D. M. (2005 7). On the “Creative Commons”: a critique of the commons without commonalty. Free Software Magazine, (5). Retrieved from http://www.freesoftwaremagazine.com/articles/commons_without_commonality

Berry, D. M., & Moss, G. (2006). The politics of the libre commons. First Monday, 11(9). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/1403/1321

Downes, S. (n.d.). What’s Wrong With Creative Commons ~ Stephen’s Web. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from http://www.downes.ca/post/54161

Elkin-Koren, N. (n.d.). Creative Commons: A Skeptical View of a Worthy Pursuit. SSRN eLibrary. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=885466

Elkin-Koren, N. (n.d.). What Contracts Can’t Do: The Limits of Private Ordering in Facilitating a Creative Commons. SSRN eLibrary. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=760906

Hill, B. M. (2005 6). Towards a Standard of Freedom: Creative Commons and the Free Software Movement. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from http://mako.cc/writing/toward_a_standard_of_freedom.html

Loren, L. P. (n.d.). Building a Reliable Semicommons of Creative Works: Enforcement of Creative Commons Licenses and Limited Abandonment of Copyright. SSRN eLibrary. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=957939&rec=1&srcabs=885466

McCann, A. (2005). Enclosure without and within the ‘information commons’. Information & Communications Technology Law, 14(3), 217. doi:10.1080/13600830500376972

11/28 Update: My Zotero problem has been fixed! You can join the new public group here: https://www.zotero.org/groups/cc_critiques

Why I won’t support Creative Commons or Wikipedia this year

It’s that time of the year again. Creative Commons and Wikipedia are working towards their fundraising goals for the coming year and asking users to donate to support the cause.

I spent the last five years working on building a global perspective on the commons and will probably spend the next working out what I did wrong. I worked directly with both organisations during this time, so it’s really sad for me to say this (and probably not very politically astute) but I feel like the only way we’re ever going to attack the problem of a lack of global agenda and global solidarity is by the funding issue. Here are my reasons in brief:

- Creative Commons (despite pressure from its international volunteers) still has a mostly male, mostly white, almost all American leadership. If CC is really committed to an international agenda, then they must at least attempt to involve a more diverse leadership in planning for the future.

- I know it’s a fundraising campaign but statements like this by Hal Abelson: ‘By supporting Creative Commons, you are helping to realize the promise of the Internet to uplift all of humanity’ leave me speechless. Until we have an international *common* agenda, until ‘all of humanity’ or at least major parts of it have ownership of this agenda (South Africa is the only African country in the CC International stable), we should feel ashamed to make statements like this.

- Wikipedia plans to spend $9.4 million in the 2009-10 financial year (up 53% from last year) and has, at last, a plan for spreading the wealth with a $295,000 new grantmaking program (that’s only 3% of spending that goes to chapters but it’s better than almost 0). Problem is that this money seems to only be going to existing chapters (there are no chapters in Africa). This means that, if you wanted money to go specifically to outreach on the African continent, you couldn’t do it since you can only donate to Wikipedia or to existing Wikipedia chapters.

I think that one of the worst things that organisations who have global goals can do is to stop people from countries who are left out of the agenda from donating money. Even if it’s just a small amount, CC and Wikipedia are perpetuating the myth that we don’t care about these issues in Africa.

My small contribution has, instead, gone to Global Voices. They spread the small amount of money that they receive pretty widely and their leadership team reaches each region at least.

Zoopy integrates Creative Commons

I can’t believe I missed this. A year ago, Zoopy announced Creative Commons integration enabling users to retain copyright and choose their own licenses and sharing conditions. Very cool.  (Belated) congrats, Jason and the team :) One suggestion, though: doesn’t look like there’s any explanation of CC in the drop-down menus or the terms. Probably a good idea to hyperlink the licenses to the code on cc.org like they do on Flickr.