James Boyle: The Public Domain

James Boyle is speaking at the RSA in London, around his interest and his book in ‘The Public Domain’. Here are some sketches from the lecture. More information here. Live blog!

Pleased to be at the RSA – since 1754, ‘how do we get innovation right, how do we encourage it?’ – incentives not based on IP. We fail to understand the public domain – needs to be balanced with IP and the current approach is unbalanced and not based on evidence. That’s the theme of today’s talk. But first:

  • Which network would you choose (in 1992) – Network #1: like a global version of Ceefax/Minitel (State or privately controlled network with terminals, approved, safe sites) or Network #2: the (then) Internet, completely open, distributed, free protocols, anyone can connect/do anything at any end, possibility of malicious/exploitative content. Which one would you invest in? The former seems safer and more sensible and the latter sounds insane (despite the innovation it subsequently enabled)
  • Second question: design an encyclopedia better than the Britannica. Choice between a top-down command model, hierarchy of researchers, protected by copyright, guarantee of authenticity vs “I’d like to put up a website, where people could post stuff”
  • Third question: software! Would you control copying or allow it to be done freely? “Linux, seen from 1992, is economically irrational”
  • The point is that we have a ‘bias against openness’ – we see the (real) dangers of openness, our ’20/20 downside vision’ – we should be aware of this bias as we’re making our cultural and social policy on this basis. It’s based in part on property/goods.

US and UK share a legal tradition of protecting freedom of expression. “The greatest examples of censorship in the history of democracy” were term extension (in the 1970s). What would the public domain have looked like today if the rules hadn’t been changed? Yet we expanded, and so much work is still covered by copyright, including massive amounts of orphan works, automatically covered on fixation. The vast majority of content eg. in the Library of Congress is commercially unavailable but covered by copyright. I’d rather we gave those copyright holders with works commercially available a big pile of cash and put everything else into the public domain. And with the Internet, that material could have been made available – for free. Our rules are ‘uniquely badly designed’ for the world we live in.

Discusses his lovely phrase of ‘cultural agoraphobia’, the fear of openness. And here comes an example: The WWW was developed in order to aid science. But it has become a brilliant source of easy access for books, shoes, travel, cultural information, porn. But for science itself, the Web is more like Compuserve. Researchers are funded by Government and the money is well spent – yet until recently there was no requirement to make the results available openly; commercial journals were the only way and you had to pay to read it on the screen. It’s not just for reading – why does the Web work with malicious/biased/stupid posters? The reason is the links(, dummy). People don’t link to the loonies, so the links are the peer review. Where are the links for science? There are no links other than the citations in the footnotes; when we built the Web, hyperlinks couldn’t work due to the walls. Imagine if we could do this! But: we’ve been doing some stupid things, making policy without evidence, doing retrospective extension.

Will tidy up later!


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