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Remembering Babel: Open Data Sharing & Integration

November 19th, 2009

Since the release of CC0, I’ve been talking to many people about when and how to use it. A group of scientists and science policy experts recently endorsed public domain data sharing, and the use of CC0 to do so, in a letter to Nature. This is a significant affirmation of our approach to data sharing. But a question that inevitably arises in many discussions is: What about data providers that are unable or unwilling to commit their data to the public domain? Will Creative Commons support providing a flexible set of licensing options, intermediate between public domain, on the one hand, and full control (secrecy), on the other?

First, I have to clarify what I mean by “data” in this discussion. “Data” by itself can mean anything, including music, movies, pictures, and other things that are clearly copyrightable. But in this discussion, I will use the term “data” in a narrower and more specific sense:  we mean facts, ideas, and concepts that are not copyrightable by themselves. An example would be Einstein’s E=MC^2 equation, the height of Mount Everest, or the coordinates of a particular star. The unprotected status of these data was affirmed in Feist Publications vs. Rural Telephone Service, where the U.S. Supreme Court found that originality is a basic Constitutional prerequisite for copyright to exist, or as Justice O’Conner, writing for the majority, said: “It is this bedrock principle of copyright that … No one may claim originality as to facts.” (emphasis added) The U.S Copyright Act further codifies this principle as a limitation on the scope of copyright protection (at Section 102(b)). Likewise, other countries recognize this limitation in their originality requirements.

This basic limitation on the scope copyright acknowledges that copyright is inherently a social compromise between the desire to reward authors for creative output and the need to protect a reservoir of facts and ideas available for everyone to draw upon. Without this “commons” of facts and ideas, social discourse and creativity would suffer. As Lawrence Lessig writes, in The Future of Ideas, “”Free resources have been crucial to innovation and creativity… without them, creativity is crippled. Thus, and especially in the digital age, the central question becomes not whether government or the market should control a resource, but whether a resource should be controlled at all. Just because control is possible, it doesn’t follow that it is justified. Instead, in a free society, the burden of justification should fall on him who would defend systems of control.”

And yet, over time, copyright control has expanded dramatically in scope and duration, straining this delicate social compromise. Ironically, it is the growth and success of the Internet, with its extraordinary power and freedom, that has spurred renewed interest in extending copyright-like controls even beyond the traditional realms of copyright itself. Databases containing myriad facts and ideas, once considered public domain if shared publicly, are now the subject of efforts to create new systems of control. In Europe, by E.U. Directive, countries have implemented “sui generis” database rights that protect databases and their contents even if they are too unoriginal to merit copyright protection. Other countries grant copyright protection to databases under relaxed copyright standards that demand less than full originality or creativity.

Finally, there are attempts to create systems of control based on contract law (like click-wrap agreements, Web site terms of use, etc.), premised not on the existence of any copyright or statutory right, but merely on voluntary agreement. Contracts can expand copyright-like controls well beyond the boundaries of traditional copyright or even sui generis protections, and indeed have no inherent limits other than the enforceability of the agreement (which can be problematic in itself). Not only do such contracts apply to uncopyrightable data, but they can also impose controls on data already otherwise in the public domain, since the issue is not the status of the data but whether you consented to abide by a contract. A recent example is the Open Data Commons’ Open Database License (ODbL), which is being considered for adoption by the OpenStreetMap community, among others. The Open Data Commons not only has been a strong supporter and advocate for open data sharing, but it has provided important community tools, including the Public Domain Dedication and License (PDDL). But unlike the previously released PDDL, the new ODbL contains attribution and share-alike obligations, among other requirements. Its terms and conditions are imposed on copyright or sui generis database rights, but it also purports to act as a contract in the absence of these protections. As a result, it attempts to impose obligations on data that even copyright and sui generis rights do not reach.

With CC0, Creative Commons has chosen to take a different approach (or rather, to stick with an approach similar to the PDDL). CC0 is a way to give up controls and dedicate data to the public domain (or as close to it as we can legally achieve). As I have explained elsewhere, we were concerned about the practical impact of “attribution stacking” and license compatibility problems for data sharing communities. Attribution stacking can burden large-scale data sharing projects that draw on many sources and license compatibility problems can shut down data integration efforts altogether.

In science, an area that I focus on, sharing data in the public domain is in fact part of a long and honored tradition. Before the Internet, data was published, if at all, in journals in print. The articles themselves may be copyrightable, but the facts and ideas revealed there were presumed to be in the public domain. Only with the advent of the Internet and digital technology has there been interest in “licensing” contents of databases including such facts and ideas. Thus, where there is an established tradition of public domain data sharing that has worked well for a community–and continues to work well– any new system of control must meet a high burden of justification. But based on our experiences with other licensing schemes, we know that such controls carry risks. Even a simple requirement like attribution, when aggregated over thousands or millions of data elements, can become a very serious burden. Scientists should provide attribution (and citation) for valid scientific reasons, and no legal requirement may be flexible enough to replace common sense or professional judgment, an important ingredient in deciding what to attribute and how. In addition, license incompatibility problems, which are especially relevant with share-alike licenses, can prevent databases or data sources from being combined or integrated or data from being reused. All of this can have a negative impact on the usability of scientific data.

In light of such risks, what could justify departures from the public domain? One argument, made to me eloquently by several data project organizers, is that unless we grant providers the flexibility to impose some controls–rather than none–they will be reluctant or unwilling to grant any access. And even restricted sharing, with some conditions, is better than no sharing at all. Further, they argue that some extremely valuable data sets might fall into this category, because the more valuable the data, the less likely it is that someone would consider simply releasing it into the public domain. And so by not offering a graduated system of controls, like the CC suite of copyright licenses, important opportunities to share are being missed, with serious consequences for those communities and perhaps for all of us. I have to admit that it’s a powerful argument against being too dogmatically attached to the public domain, and if true, it might justify other approaches.

At issue is whether more data would be made available under a more restrictive system than the public domain and to what extent those restrictions impair the value of that data to the community. I don’t think we know the answer fully yet. It’s a question that undoubtedly deserves more research by sociologists and other scholars, based on empirical evidence. But, when in doubt, what should be done? I come back to Lessig’s admonition that, “the burden of justification should fall on him who would defend systems of control.” I think the best that can be said for more restrictive systems of sharing data is “not yet proven.” And that’s why we will continue to advocate public domain and CC0 for data sharing.

Ontology sharing and copyright considerations

November 3rd, 2009

Important (and exciting) news in the world of shared vocabularies at Science Commons, a key component of our technical work to make knowledge sharing more efficient.

As of last week, OWL 2 – a standard web ontology language – was formally recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as part of their Semantic Web activity. Science Commons’ Alan Ruttenberg has been diligently working with the OWL working group specifying OWL 2 at the W3C to push this recommendation through. (Ruttenberg is the co-chair with Ian Horrocks at Oxford.) The W3C says that the transition to OWL 2 is a reflection of user experience with OWL, and the need to enable seamless integration and scalability.

From the W3C’s announcement:

“[OWL 2] allows people to capture their knowledge about a particular domain (say, energy or medicine) and then use tools to manage information, search through it, and learn more from it. Furthermore, as an open standard based on Web technology, it lowers the cost of merging knowledge from multiple domains.”

Also, building off of our existing work around the application of copyright licenses to content and data, there is now a resource available at sciencecommons.org that sheds light on copyright considerations for ontologies. We have long been asked what is the best means to license (or not) ontologies, a topic that’s not always easy to discern in terms of applicable rights regimes.

The resource explores when copyright may apply to an ontology as well as a number of other concerns regarding protection and the means to achieve that.

You can find this resource – “Ontology Copyright Licensing Considerations” – in our Reading Room.

Nguyen on ‘hidden legal barriers’ to research

October 22nd, 2009

The latest edition of Genomics Law Report features a guest commentary on the roadblocks to knowledge sharing and scientific research, penned by Science Commons Counsel Thinh Nguyen. The report is a publication out of the law firm Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson.

In the commentary, “The Hidden Legal Barriers to Scientific Research”, Nguyen details some of the lesser discussed hurdles to scientific research, from materials transfer agreements to the legal implications surrounding the sharing of data and interoperability.

He writes:

“The increasing extent to which legal formalities, and thus lawyers, intermediate scientific sharing, not only between academia and industry but increasingly between academics themselves, represents a cultural sea-change with important consequences for how science is conducted in the future. The public and unrestricted availability of genomic databases and resources, or the “commons”, must be cultivated and defended, through a robust community consensus, or it can easily fragment into legally constructed “walled gardens” without public right of way.”

Well said.

For more writing on barriers to scientific research, visit our Reading Room and check out Nguyen’s “Freedom to Research”.

Wilbanks named one of Utne Reader’s 50 visionaries

October 20th, 2009

John Wilbanks, VP of Science at Creative Commons, has been named one of Utne Reader’s 50 visionaries, along with others ranging from the Dalai Lama, to Cory Doctorow and Brewster Kahle.

The piece, “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World”, is the second of its kind coming from Utne Reader, an alternative news bi-monthly magazine based in the US. The list also drills down into some of the background on each of the “visionaries” — in this case crediting the work at Science Commons as pushing forth a “nerdy but important message” of access and sharing in the sciences to spur innovation and discovery.

“We have a network of knowledge,” Wilbanks says. “We need to liberate it enough that it can actually take off.”

To learn more about the other visionaries, click here.

CC0 endorsed in Nature opinion piece

September 9th, 2009

A new opinion piece in Nature on post-publication sharing of tools explicitly recommends open sharing and the use of CC0 to put data in the public domain. The special issue of Nature focuses on data sharing and is now online and accessible free of charge.

The piece “Post-publication sharing of data and tools” comes out of this year’s CASIMIR conference in Rome, and discusses the sharing of biological materials, specifically but not limited to mice and embryonic stem cells.

As you may recall, we initially wrote about this meeting back in June, following the publication of a similar opinion piece calling for better and more efficient sharing practices for physical materials. That article also stemmed from this meeting in Rome.

This opinion piece takes those ideas one step further in the discussion to a formal recommendation for open sharing under the least restrictive terms possible.

“[T]he Rome meeting strongly encouraged sharing behaviours that promote a ‘research commons’. The heart of a research commons is one in which academic research is not impeded by restrictions on use and access to data and materials, in line with the principles of the Creative Commons.”

The piece is chock-full of stellar recommendations that Science Commons supports, from better and more explicit resource sharing policies at journals and funding bodies, to the use of standard MTAs, to making data open and putting it in the public domain using CC0, our public domain waiver.

“Although it is usual practice for major public databases to make data freely available to access and use, any restrictions on use should be strongly resisted and we endorse explicit encouragement of open sharing, for example under the newly available CC0 public domain waiver of Creative Commons.”

We highly encourage a deeper read of the article for more tips on how to share resources more efficiently, as well as giving this article a read for more on pre-publication data sharing.

How can IP help spread green technology?

July 31st, 2009

A recent feature in SEED Magazine asks the question: How can intellectual property – and more specifically the current patent system – spread green technology? The article, “Who Owns Green Tech?” features replies from five leading thinkers on the matter. Our own John Wilbanks was one of those panelists.

In his response, Wilbanks, VP of Science at Creative Commons, challenges the public to not view this conversation of innovation as a black and white situation, but to make room for new forms of innovation in the discussion (ie., user-driven innovation, open innovation). He also encourages conversations on how patents get licensed and used, and how standards-based approaches may allow for more open innovation.

“We can find a way to balance the incentives of corporate innovators while making sure the innovators in the developing world have the means to solve their own problems. We’ve seen similar solutions take root in cultural commerce with extraordinary results, from the existence of Wikipedia to Nine Inch Nails making millions of dollars on songs they also gave away on the internet for free,” Wilbanks said. “We can do this for patents, and we can do this for sustainability technology. But it can’t be done if the rhetoric around the conversation is consistently fueled by maximalism and confrontation.”

This idea is at the core of the GreenXchange project, a venture by Creative Commons, Nike and Best Buy to create a marketplace for invention. For more information about the project, visit the GreenXchange project page.

Tonight at the Commonwealth Club (SF)

July 28th, 2009

Commoners and digerati alike will come together tonight at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco for a vibrant discussion on the intersection of science and the Web. The event, “Making the Web Work for Science”, will be moderated by Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, joined by panelists Stephen Friend (Sage), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), and our own John Wilbanks (Science Commons).

The night will be dedicated to the idea of bringing Web efficiencies to scientific research – a core theme seen in our work and thinking here at Science Commons. We now have the tools and understanding to bring together open research and data on a global scale, embedded with the freedoms necessary to be able to fully utilize it. Come help us further discuss this concept with some of the top names in the Bay area tech community as well as open science advocates.

The event (currently sold out, but stay tuned) kicks off at 6 p.m. with a networking reception; the main event beginning at 6:30. A private reception will follow. Tickets are $8 for Commonwealth Club members, $15 for non-members, and $7 for students with valid ID.

Update: The video of the event is now online.

WisconsinView dedicates 6+ terabytes of data to the public domain

July 1st, 2009

As of July 1, WisconsinView, an effort to make available a variety of types of imagery for the state of Wisconsin, will make their data available in the public domain via CC0. This news was brought to us by Puneet Kishor, a Science Commons fellow.

From the press release:

“Since 2004, WisconsinView  has made aerial photography and satellite imagery of Wisconsin available to the public for free over the web. As part of the AmericaView consortium, WisconsinView supports access and use of these imagery collections through education, workforce development, and research. Starting June 30, 2009, WisconsinView is making available all of its more than 6 Terabytes of imagery data under the new CC0 Protocol provided by Creative Commons. The CC0 (pronounced CC-Zero) Protocol waives any rights in a dataset, ensuring that all of the dataset is available to anyone without encumbrance of any kind. More information on CC0 is available at http://wiki.creativecommons.org/CC0, and the reasoning behind the protocol is described here. Further questions about WisconsinView may be directed to Dr. Sam Batzli, Director, WisconsinView at sabatzli@wisc.edu or Puneet Kishor, Science Commons Fellow (Geospatial Data) at punkish@creativecommons.org.”

We applaud Batzli and Kishor for their ongoing work in making information available to the public and dedicating such a rich resource to the public domain.

The ‘sharing principle’ for biological materials

June 12th, 2009

A new editorial on the sharing of biological materials, specifically lab mice, is now available in Nature. The editorial “The sharing principle” addresses the conclusion of a recent workshop in Rome hosted by CASIMIR – a EU project working to “coordinate and sustain mouse resources internationally.”

The May meeting focused on sharing scientific knowledge – in this case mouse lines and resources, a tacit form of knowledge critical to the scientific research cycle. Our legal counsel, Thinh Nguyen joined the event, presenting our position on data sharing for genetic mouse material and our Materials Transfer work. The event brought together a wide array of participants, from various continents and organizations (funding agencies, academics, publishers, mouse repositories, etc.)

Their conclusion – the sharing problem needs to be addressed immediately if we are to make use of the genomic output and data, increasing exponentially as efforts become more coordinated, technology advances, and the process becomes cheaper and more efficient.

This should start with the journals and funding agencies, the author posits, by putting in place stricter policies requiring authors as a condition of publication / funding to make mice available in a public repository, or at the very least, freely available to other labs.

The facilities, coordination and technology all exist to make this happen. Our Materials Transfer work plays a part in this, allowing for those materials to be tagged, discovered and seamlessly transfered using standard, modular contracts that help clear up some of the clutter in the technology transfer system. All with the same goal in mind – to further lower the barrier and transaction cost to transferring scientific materials. All it takes are users willing to share.

For more information about our Materials Transfer work, visit its project page, where you can read the background on this, access the MTA chooser, and view the latest video.

Wilbanks’ talk on ‘Knowledge Interoperability’ from CSE now online

May 12th, 2009

The latest talk from Science Commons John Wilbanks on “Knowledge Interoperability” is now online, made available on “Beyond the Book”, an educational program out of the Copyright Clearance Center. The presentation was given at the annual Council of Science Editors Annual Meeting, held in Pittsburgh from May 1-5.

In Wilbanks’ talk he details the need for an open approach when it comes to knowledge sharing in the digital world, necessary to really see network effects on available information and explosions of innovation. He argues that the ability to create and distribute is now ubiquitous, and that the digital commons presents a different opportunity for sharing, if allowed. Our work at Creative Commons aims to facilitate that sharing ecosystem,  better leverage the power of the network, and enable sharing that’s legally sound, easy and scalable.