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The Information Revolution

How the copyleft movement will set information free, and trigger a sea change in the way we innovate and learn.

Written by johnleemk on 7:10:49 am Jan 15, 2007.

There is a revolution going on in the world of information. It's a revolution that will finally realise the potential of the web by bringing down the barriers to innovation that a hundred years of copyright law have erected. What am I speaking of? The copyleft revolution, of course. Copylefted material is information which can be taken and reused by anyone, for any purpose. You've probably stumbled across copylefted material before and not even realised it. Wikipedia is copylefted, for example. So is Jeff Ooi's blog, Screenshots.

The revolution with regard to copyrights is that we are now beginning to appreciate just how different abstract information is from concrete material. Physical entities are difficult to transfer, and their owners are easily fixed and identifiable. I can state, for example, that the computer hardware I am typing this essay on belongs to me. It would be possible for someone to enter my house and take this hardware away, but it would be very difficult to do so (relatively speaking).

With information, on the other hand, who can be said to own it? Do I own the bits and bytes in my computer's memory that comprise this article? The answer initially seems obvious - yes, I do. But what if a hacker sneaks into my computer and takes these bits and bytes for his own purposes? Have I been deprived of anything? Of course not - the information I created remains mine to use. It is just that now the hacker can use it as well. And as for taking the information, it is infinitely more easier to copy and paste text on the screen than to physically break and enter.

Given these differences, it is a bit surprising that the law treats information and physical objects in exactly the same way. While this may have been feasible when information was tied down to a physical form such as books or papers, this is no longer so in the digital age, when the sum of human knowledge can be represented in a binary code transferrable in the blink of an eye from a computer in Cairo, Egypt to Cairo, Illinois. Even if we wanted to treat information and physical object the same way, how could we possibly enforce property rights in such a system? This is precisely why illegal file-sharing services have sprouted up and continue to survive - because enforcing archaic laws against them is practically impossible.

There remain detriments, of course. It seems quite unfair for the creator of information not to be suitably reimbursed for his contribution to mankind. I have briefly touched on this before, in the course of explaining the free rider problem and its application to patents. This is a difficult, but by no means insurmountable problem. I believe it can be resolved satisfactorily. The current situation is probably just as bad, at any rate - it gives the creator of information a monopoly over it, and if there's one thing orthodox economics abhors, it's a monopoly.

Till then, however, we are faced with the dilemma of shackled information - knowledge that is locked up simply because of archaic laws unsuited for the information age. The solution, then, has been to encourage people to license their works under a copyleft licence. Wikipedia has opted for the GNU Free Documentation Licence, which is rather unwieldy and a bit restrictive in its terms (for example, a hardcopy version of the licence must be given with every hardcopy version of the work licensed under the GFDL - a bit impractical if you just want to print out a short essay and share it with a friend).

More and more people, however, are opting for one of the Creative Commons licences. The only two real copyleft Creative Commons licences are the CC attribution and the CC attribution sharealike licences. Basically, the CC attribution licence requires anyone reusing the work to credit the author. The CC attribution sharealike licence requires anyone reusing the work to credit the author and licence the new work that uses the original material under the same (i.e. CC attribution sharealike) licence.

A number of other Creative Commons licences exist, such as the CC non-commercial attribution licence. These are not copyleft licences because they impose constraints on how you can reuse the work. For instance, under any no-derivatives CC licence, it is impossible for people to build on your work by modifying it. Despite the non-libre nature of these licences, they are quite popular among people who want to control the dissemination of their works while making it, to some extent, free.

At this point, you may be curious as to why I do not licence this site or my writings under a copyleft licence. The reason is simple: greed. If someone wants to take one of my articles and use it, I want to be able to negotiate terms of usage. This control over information does not jibe very well with the copyleft philosophy, but my stand is the same as any person operating in a tragedy of the commons. If few other people are releasing their material into the public domain, I see no reason for me to sacrifice my work and release it into the public domain. I believe that at some indeterminate point in the future (possibly a century or more away), copyright will break down because it is simply untenable under the realities of abstract information's qualities in a digital era, where everything can be easily transferred. Till we reach that point, however, I see no reason for me to simply place everything I create under a copyleft licence.

The other thing is that de facto, this site is already copylefted because anyone can take my material and just use it. I am utterly powerless to enforce any property rights the law might confer upon me, short of filing a lawsuit, which is not a cost-effective proposition unless the information thief has very big pockets. As such, I am content to let copyright violations slide, unless the violator is someone whom I can sue and get some money out of (such as, say, Bill Gates).

Another reason this site is de facto copyleft is that I am quite permissive about the usage of my material in the first place. Just contact me, and (in almost all cases) I'll be glad to allow it. A number of articles published here have been reproduced elsewhere, such as on this blog, with my permission. Although strictly speaking, I do not adhere to the letter of copyleft philosophy, I think I am quite within the spirit of the philosophy.

Now, that major digression having been put aside, let's look at a different aspect of this information revolution: the Luddites. The Luddites are those who cling to the past - a past where property rights over information were somewhat enforceable. I've found that this piece from The Register is quite interesting and thought-provoking - and also ultimately wrong in its conclusions. I hope to be able to explain my reasoning for this opinion in a future article.