thoughts: intellectual property, copyright maximalism, and library data

Tim Berners-Lee didn’t patent the web.

Let me back up. Once upon a time in Switzerland, Berners-Lee took bits and pieces that had been lying around — hypertext, research data, a desperate need for communication in a large, complex project, the internet — and attached them together with metaphorical duct tape — the first version of http, the first browser.

(Digression: Berners-Lee was writing these at exactly the time I was first discovering the internet — white text on black screens, secret silent worlds hidden behind new and often whimsical vocabulary — gopher, MOO, ytalk, FTP, punctuation of semantic import. My secret silent world was full of nearly all the voices that mattered to me then, in a quiet and otherwise lonely adolescence: people from somewhere else, people who cared about the things I cared about, who heard my voice, in the secret silent places, as true and authentic. Who built communities invisible and strong as spidersilk, connecting places I’d never been. A few years later I saw my first graphical browser, NCSA Mosaic, and it was one of those lightning-bolt, remember-where-you-were-when moments. I didn’t know how, yet, but I knew it had changed everything.)

Tim Berners-Lee didn’t patent the web.

He had every right to, of course. And at the time — aside from the occasional outcast teenager predating off her university parents’ internet access — it was a place for people with institutional affiliations. You could patent http and license it to institutions. Sure. Why not? But instead the W3C he founded, to establish internet standards and maintain interoperability, has a patent policy that insists all its technology be offered on a royalty-free basis, unencumbered.

Just think what he could have made in the licensing fees! Something, I should think, something nontrivial. And in the meantime there would have been no way for a college student hacking on open-source code to invent Mosaic (how would he have paid the royalties?) And without Mosaic, no way to crack the world open, to bring the internet (with dizzying long-September speed) from a secret silent place to a tumble, a cacophony, of sharing and buying and selling and loving and questioning and hope, a place for everyone. No matter the royalty fees there is no amount Tim Berners-Lee could have made that would have bought him a world containing Google and Facebook and lolcats and iPhones and Rickrolling and Buy India a Library and Etsy and StackOverflow and the Arab Spring.

No. Amount. Of. Money.

Don’t get me wrong: I like royalties. I paid taxes on $40.07 of them myself last year, and got a few thousand dollars more (on a non-royalty basis) from other writing, and I’m glad we have marketplaces and laws which protect my ability to create intellectual property and subsequently profit from it. We absolutely need a legal scheme that respects this, and weighs it against the other benefits society reaps from wholly open work. Perhaps it could look something like this:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

When I hear copyright maximalists, clamoring about the need to protect (enchain, lock down) work — yes, my personal financial benefit from the creators’ side of that intellectual property equation tugs on me — but more than that, I hear the vacuum. I hear where they’re talking about the need of creators (or IP owners, at least) to benefit from the uses they can envision of a work. But I don’t hear the other benefits — the ones we get from living in a world where people use our works in ways we cannot imagine.

http isn’t special because Tim Berners-Lee made it. It’s special because we made something of it. Because you and I, right now, reading, writing, across protocols that still run through the secret silent places, are making a conversation of it.

It’s the world I hear, too, when people talk about data without APIs, workflows without open standards — one-off spreadsheets, special-snowflake tools, things not shared — the way library data and processes in general function. Yes, they get our jobs done in the way we’ve always done them. Yes, in that sense, they work. But they work from end-to-defined-end, point A to point B — they are a direction — they are not a layer. They’re an end in themselves, not a step in the process, not a tool for others to build something else on top of. What beautiful world would people build on open libraries, if only we would let them?

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