Post Intellectual Protectionism

Greatest month in history?

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

Yesterday, 11 years ago, today, 22 years and 4 months. Recently I noticed an observation in slides by Glyn Moody on Open Acccess (related editorial):

25 August 1991 – Finnish student, Linus Torvalds, announced the start of Linux
23 August 1991 – World Wide Web released publicly
14 August 1991 – Launch of arXiv

Moody titled the slide with above items “greatest week in history?” — arXiv is listed as 19 August, which I think must be a transcription error. Still, perhaps the greatest month in some assessment which grants something like knowledge commons supreme importance; perhaps future conventional wisdom. Those three are a nice mix of software, protocols, literature, data, and infrastructure.

collapsed broadcast towerThe world’s tallest broadcast tower collapsed 8 August 1991 to make way for somewhat less centralized communications.

Linux and the Web make Wikipedia’s short list of August 1991 events, which is dominated by the beginning of the final phase of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. (I have an old post which is a tiny bit relevant to tying this all together, however unwarranted that may be.)

arXiv isn’t nearly as well known to the general public as Linux, which isn’t nearly as well known as the Web. In some ways arXiv is still ahead of its time. The future takes a long time to be distributed — Moody’s cover slide is titled “half a revolution”. Below I’ve excepted a few particularly enjoyable paragraphs and footnotes from It was twenty years ago today… by arXiv founder Paul Ginsparg (who, Moody notes, knew of GNU via a brother). I’ve bolded a couple phrases and added one link for additional entertainment value. The whole 9 page paper (PDF) is worth a quick read (I can’t help but notice and enjoy the complete absence of two words: “copyright” and “license”).

The exchange of completed manuscripts to personal contacts directly by email became more widespread, and ultimately led to distribution via larger email lists.13 The latter had the potential to correct a significant problem of unequal access in the existing paper-preprint distribution system. For purely practical reasons, authors at the time used to mail photocopies of their newly minted articles to only a small number of people. Those lower in the food chain relied on the beneficence of those on the A-list, and aspiring researchers at non-elite institutions were frequently out of the privileged loop entirely. This was a problematic situation, because, in principle, researchers prefer that their progress depends on working harder or on having some key insight, rather than on privileged access to essential materials.

By the spring of 1991, I had moved to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and for the first time had my own computer on my desk, a 25 MHz NeXTstation with a 105 Mb hard drive and 16 Mb of RAM. I was thus fully cognizant of the available disk and CPU resources, both substantially larger than on a shared mainframe, where users were typically allocated as little as the equivalent of 0.5 Mb for personal use. At the Aspen Center for Physics, in Colorado, in late June 1991, a stray comment from a physicist, concerned about emailed articles overrunning his disk allocation while traveling, suggested to me the creation of a centralized automated repository and alerting system, which would send full texts only on demand. That solution would also democratize the exchange of information, leveling the aforementioned research playing field, both internally within institutions and globally for all with network access.

Thus was born xxx.lanl.gov,18 initially an automated email server (and within a few months also an FTP server), powered by a set of csh scripts.19 It was originally intended for about 100 submissions per year from a small subfield of high-energy particle physics, but rapidly grew in users and scope, receiving 400 submissions in its first half year. The submissions were initially planned to be deleted after three months, by which time the pre-existing paper distribution system would catch up, but by popular demand nothing was ever deleted. (Renamed in late 1998 to arXiv.org, it has accumulated roughly 700,000 total submissions [mid Aug 2011], currently receives 75,000 new submissions per year, and serves roughly one million full text downloads to about 400,000 distinct users per week. The system quickly attracted the attention of existing physics publishers, and in rapid succession I received congenial visits from the editorial directors of both the American Physical Society (APS) and Institute of Physics Publishing (IOPP) to my little 10’x10’ office. It also had an immediate impact on physicists in less developed countries, who reported feeling finally in the loop, both for timely receipt of research ideas and for equitable reading of their own contributions. (Twenty years later, I still receive messages reporting that the system provides to them more assistance than any international organization.)

In the fall of 1992, a colleague at CERN emailed me: ‘Q: do you know the worldwide-web program?’ I did not, but quickly installed WorldWideWeb.app, serendipitously written by Tim Berners-Lee for the same NeXT computer that I was using, and with whom I began to exchange emails. Later that fall, I used it to help beta-test the first US Web server, set up by the library at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center for use by the high-energy physics community.

Not everyone appreciated just how rapidly things were progressing. In early 1994, I happened to serve on a committee advising the APS about putting Physical Review Letters online. I suggested that a Web interface along the lines of the xxx.lanl.gov prototype might be a good way for the APS to disseminate its documents. A response came back from another committee member: “Installing and learning to use a WorldWideWeb browser is a complicated and difficult task — we can’t possibly expect this of the average physicist.”

13The most significant of these was maintained by Joanne Cohn, then a postdoctoral associate at the IAS Princeton, who manually collected and redistributed preprints (originally in the subject area of matrix models of two dimensional surfaces) to what became a list of over a hundred interested researchers, largely younger postdocs and grad students. This manual methodology provided an important proof of concept for the broader automated and archival system that succeeded it, and her distribution list was among those used to seed the initial hep-th@xxx.lanl.gov userbase.

18The name xxx was derived from the heuristic I’d used in marking text in TeX files for later correction (i.e., awaiting a final search for all appearances of the string ‘xxx’, which wouldn’t otherwise appear, and for which I later learned the string ‘tk’ is employed by journalists, for similar reasons).

19The csh scripts were translated to Perl starting in 1994, when NSF funding permitted actual employees.

(the rest)

CC11x11, before, 0, &freebassel

Monday, December 16th, 2013
Gimped CC cake 10 / BY / Kristina Alexanderson
(I wrote 90% of this post a year ago; currently unaware of any actual CC 11 cakes or celebrations.)

Today is the 11th anniversary of the launch of the first version of the first 11 Creative Commons licenses. Depending how one counts, there are now as few as 0, though 6 is probably the conventional answer (only current international versions of ones that were among the original 11), or as many as 608 (all versions, jurisdiction ports, retired licenses, and public domain instruments).

If 2002-12-16 is a significant marker, I’d like to take a look at what preceded it, very nearby — other public copyright licenses, public domain dedications, and ad hoc sharing statements. Eventually I hope to take a more in-depth look at all of these, and moreso I hope others do research around them.

Prior to the 1980s, such statements are very scattered. Has anyone pieced together commonalities and differences of pro-info-sharing statements through history? Examples…

In 868 the Diamond Sutra included:

Reverently [caused to be] made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong.

1869 Recent Discussions on the Abolition of Patents for Inventions, setting a standard that modern books on advocating reform (inclusive of abolition) fail to meet:

No rights are reserved

1910 the English translation of Gandhi’s Indian Home Rule was printed with the words No Rights Reserved on the title page.

1967 the copyright notice of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace included:

Permission is granted to reprint any of these poems in magazines, books and newspapers if they are given away free.

1976 Tiny BASIC for Intel 8080 included:

@COPYLEFT; ALL WRONGS RESERVED

1978 In the Making included:

“Alternative publications may reproduce freely provided acknowledgement is made.”

I believe many statements along such lines were published, especially in the last century, but again, as far as I know, nobody has ever thoroughly investigated. I’m very interested, in part because I have a hunch what might be characterized as “information commons” have been malgoverned for the entirety of human history. Why did pro-sharing statements, in the form of public copyright licenses, only become regularized, widespread, and thought by some as creating and protecting commons, in the 1980s, starting with software?

The easy answer is that software had just become clearly restricted by copyright, and programmers have a more immediately compelling need to collaborate across organizational boundaries in a way that implicates copyright restrictions than do others. Still, one may question just how different paths would need to have been for explicit pro-sharing practices to have developed in other domains first, even pre-computer, and how the norms of such practices might have differed. I’ve speculated, very briefly that it’s plausible order could’ve been different, and essentially software freedom norms are a “sweet spot” that would’ve been arrived at anyway. Much more could be said about that, and also about whether and how the explicit pro-sharing practices I’ve recognized as such in this post have crowded out or complemented other pro-sharing practices.

In any case, in the 5 years prior to the launch of the first 11 Creative Commons licenses, there was a proliferation of interest in public copyright licenses for various forms of non-software works (including hardware designs, which took longer to capture much interest, and I won’t cover here). An incomplete list of such licenses released 1998-2002:

Anti-Copyright License, Comic Book Public License, Design Science License, Distributed Encyclopedia General Public License, EFF Open Audio License, Electrohippie Collective’s Ethical Open Documentation License, Ethymonics Free Music License, Free Art License, Free Media License, Free Music Public License, GNU Free Documentation License, No Type License, OpenBits License, Open Content License, Open Directory License, the Open Music licenses, Open Publication License, Open Source Music License, Public Library of Science Open Access License, QING Public Licnese, and Phy-d’eau — License of Intention for Liberty in Expression and Creativity.

Many of these licenses are non-free/open, and nearly all are incompatible with all the rest. These problems preceded Creative Commons. Whether in the past 10 years Creative Commons has on net made these problems better or worse (or merely not better fast enough) is hard to say. One curiosity about these pre-CC licenses is that the only ones remaining in any kind of significant use (Free Art License and Free Documentation License) are free/open, copyleft licenses.

Near certainty of large adoption of public licenses and public domain dedications outside software also preceded CC. The effect one can be most certain of attributing to CC is of killing adoption of the few of these licenses that had any plausibility, and of the development of further non-CC licenses, for awhile. Whether a dominant central license steward was net positive, is hard to say. It’s easy to see some marketing benefits, and some innovation costs, and vice versa.

Some public licenses created for software, mostly the GNU GPL, and BSD licenses, were used for some non-software works before the explosion of non-software public licenses (of which CC was part). An open question is whether this explosion was a good thing at all, or rather a failure on the part of free software license pioneers to occupy a broader space, and create a broader-based, less fragmented movement for intellectual freedom…the part facilitated by public licenses that is.

It’s also possible that free software started with the wrong arrangement in the form of public licenses, and others, including what became CC, ought have tried something different, for example clubs/pools, or skipping voluntary methods altogether. (Many people have focused on one or more of direct action, litigation, and public policy. I tend to think there’s far too little appreciation and collaboration across these methods and voluntary construction, resulting in a further fragmented, scared, and weak movement.)

I didn’t publish a year ago because I’d intended to add sections on the “CC era” of the past 10, now 11 years, and the future. My recent extended quasi-review of CC 4.0 licenses will have to suffice. Now…

Celebrate CC’s 11th birthday:

Upgrade to CC0

Free Bassel

[Semi]Commons Coordinations & Copyright Choices 4.0

Monday, December 9th, 2013

CC0 is superior to any of the Creative Commons (CC) 4.0 licenses, because CC0 represents a superior policy (public domain). But if you’re unable or unwilling to upgrade to CC0, the CC 4.0 licenses are a great improvement over the 3.0 licenses. The people who did the work, led by Diane Peters (who also led CC0), many CC affiliates (several of whom were also crucial in making CC0 a success), and Sarah Pearson and Kat Walsh, deserve much praise. Bravo!

Below read my idiosyncratic take on issues addressed and not addressed in the 4.0 licenses. If that sounds insufferable, but you want to know about details of the 4.0 licenses, skip to the excellent version 4 and license versions pages on the CC wiki. I don’t bother linking to sections of those pages pertinent to issues below, but if you want detailed background beyond my idiosyncratic take on each issue, it can be found there.

Any criticism I have of the 4.0 licenses concerns policy choices and is not a criticism of the work done or people involved, other than myself. I fully understand that the feasible choices were and are highly constrained by previous choices and conditions, including previous versions of the CC licenses, CC’s organizational history, users of CC licenses, and the overall states of knowledge commons and info regulation and CC’s various positions within these. I always want CC and other “open” organizations to take as pro-commons of a stance as possible, and generally judge what is possible to be further than that of the conventional wisdom of people who pay any attention to this scene. Sometimes I advocated for more substantial policy changes in the 4.0 licenses, though just as often I deemed such advocacy futile. At this point I should explain that I worked for CC until just after the 4.0 licenses process started, and have consulted a bit on 4.0 licenses issues since then as a “fellow”. Not many people were in a better position to influence the 4.0 licenses, so any criticisms I have are due to my failure to convince, or perhaps incorrect decision to not try in some cases. As I’ve always noted on this blog, I don’t represent any organization here.

Desiderata

Pro-commons? As opposed to what? The title of the CC blog post announcing the formal beginning of work on the new licenses:

Copyright Experts Discuss CC License Version 4.0 at the Global Summit

My personal blog post:

Commons experts to develop version 4.0 of the CC licenses

The expertise that CC and similar organizations ought to bring to the world is commons coordination. There are many copyright experts in the world, and understanding public copyright licenses, and drafting more, are no great intellectual challenges. The copyright expertise needed to do so ought be purely instrumental, serving the purpose of commons coordination. Or so I think.

Throughout CC’s existence, it has presented itself, and been perceived as, to varying extents, an organization which provides tools for copyright holders to exercise their copyrights, and an organization which provides tools for building a commons. (What it does beyond providing tools adds another dimension, not unrelated to “copyright choice” vs. “commons coordination”; there’s some discussion of these issues in a video included in my personal post above.)

I won’t explain in this post, but I think the trend through most of CC’s history has been very slow movement in the “commons coordination” direction, and the explicit objectives of the 4.0 versioning process fit that crawl.

“Commons coordination” does not directly imply the usual free/open vs. proprietary/closed dichotomy. I think it does mostly fall out that way, in small part due to “license interoperability” practicalities, but probably mostly because I think the ideal universal copyregulation policy corresponds to the non-discriminatory commons that “free/open” terms and communities carve out on a small scale, including the pro-sharing policy that copyleft prototypes, and excluding any role for knowledge enclosure, monopoly, property, etc. But it is certainly possible, indeed usual, to advocate for a mixed regime (I enjoy the relatively new term “semicommons”, but if you wish to see it everywhere, try every non-demagogic call for “balance”), in which case [semi]commons tools reserving substantial exclusivity (e.g., “commercial use”) make perfect sense for [semi]commons coordination.

Continuing to ignore the usual [non-]open dichotomy, I think there still are a number of broad criteria for would-be stewards of any new commons coordinating license (and make no mistake, a new version of a license is a new license; CC introduced 6 new licenses with 4.0) to consider carefully, and which inform my commentary below:

  • Differentiation: does the new license implement some policy not currently available in existing licenses, or at least offer a great improvement in implementation (not to provide excuses for new licenses, but the legal text is just one part of implementation; also consider branding/positioning, understandability, and stewardship) of policy already available?
  • Permissions: does the new license grant all permissions needed to realize its policy objective?
  • Regulation: how does the license’s policy objective model regulation that ought be adopted at a wider scale, e.g., how does it align with usual “user rights” and “copyright reform” proposals?
  • Interoperability: is the new license maximally compatible with existing licenses, given the constraints of its policy objectives, and indeed, to the expense of its immediate policy objectives, given that incompatibility, non-interoperability, and proliferation must fragment and diminish the value of commons?
  • Cross-domain impact: how does the license impact license interoperability and knowledge sharing across fields/domains/communities (e.g., software, data, hardware, “content”, research, government, education, culture…)? Does it further silo existing domains, a tragedy given the paucity of knowledge about governing commons in the world, or facilitate sharing and collaboration across domains?

Several of these are merely a matter of good product design and targeting, and would also apply to an organization that really had a primary goal of offering copyright holders additional choices the organization deems are under-provided. I suspect there is plenty of room for innovation in “copyright choice” tools, but I won’t say more in this post, as such have little to do with commons, and whatever CC’s history of copyright choice rhetoric and offering a gaggle of choices, creating such tools is distant from its immediate expertise (other than just knowing lots about copyright) and light years from much of its extended community.

Why bother?

Apart from amusing myself and a few others, why this writeup? The CC 4.0 licenses won’t change, and hopefully there won’t be CC 4.1 or 4.5 or 5.0 licenses for many years. Longevity was an explicit goal for 4.0 (cf. 1.0: 17 months, 2.0: 12 months; 2.5: 20 months; 3.0: 81 months). Still, some of the issues covered here may be interesting to people choosing to use one of the CC 4.0 licenses, and people creating other licenses. Although nobody wants more licenses, often called license proliferation, as an end in itself, many more licenses is the long term trend, of which the entire history of CC is just a part. Further, more licenses can be a good, to the extent they are significantly different from and better than, and as compatible as possible with, existing licenses.

To be totally clear: many new licenses will be created and used over the next 10 years, intended for various domains. I would hope, some for all domains. Proliferators, take heed!

Development tools

A 4.0 wiki page and a bunch of pages under that were used to lay out objectives, issues and options for resolution, and link to drafts. Public discussion was on the cc-licenses list, with tangential debate pushed to cc-community. Drafts and changes from previous drafts were published as redlined word processor files. This all seems to have worked fairly well. I’d prefer drafts as plain text files in a git repository, and an issue tracker, in addition to a mailing list. But that’s a substantially different workflow, and word processor documents with track changes and inline comments do have advantages, not limited to lawyers being familiar with those tools.

100% wiki would also work, with different tradeoffs. In the future additional tools around source repositories, or wikis, or wikis in source repositories, will finally displace word processor documents, but the tools aren’t there yet. Or in the bad future, all licenses will be drafted in word processors in the cloud.

(If it seems that I’m leaving a a lot out, e.g., methodology for gathering requirements and feedback, in-person and teleconferences, etc., I merely have nothing remotely interesting to say, and used “tools” rather than “process” to narrow scope intentionally.)

Internationalization

The 4.0 licenses were drafted to be jurisdiction neutral, and there will be official, equivalent, verbatim language translations of the licenses (the same as CC0, though I don’t think any translations have been made final yet). Legal “porting” to individual jurisdictions is not completely ruled out, but I hope there will be none. This is a wholly positive outcome, and probably the most impactful change for CC itself (already playing out over the past few years, e.g., in terms of scope and composition of CC affiliates), though it is of small direct consequence to most users.

Now, will other license drafters and would-be drafters follow CC’s lead and stop with the vanity jurisdiction license proliferation already?

Databases

At least the EU, Mexico, Russia, and South Korea have created “database rights” (there have been attempts in other jurisdictions), copyright-like mechanisms for entities that assemble databases to persecute others who would extract or copy substantial portions of said databases. Stupid policies that should be abolished, copyright-like indeed.

Except for CC0 and some minor and inconsistent exceptions (certain within-EU jurisdiction “port” versions), CC licenses prior to 4.0 have not “covered” database rights. This means, modulo any implied license which may or may not be interpreted as existing, that a prior-to-4.0 (e.g., CC-BY-3.0) licensee using a database subject to database restrictions (when this occurs is a complicated question) would have permission granted by the licensor around copyright restrictions, but not around database restrictions. This is a pretty big fail, considering that the first job of a public license is to grant adequate permissions. Actual responses to this problem:

  • Tell all database publishers to use CC0. I like this, because everyone should just use CC0. But, it is an inadequate response, as many will continue to use less permissive terms, often in the form of inadequate or incompatible licenses.
  • Only waive or license database restrictions in “ports” of licenses to jurisdictions in which database restrictions exist. This is wholly inadequate, as in the CC scheme, porting involves tailoring the legal language of a license to a jurisdiction, but there’s no guarantee a licensor or licensee in such jurisdictions will be releasing or using databases under one of these ports, and in fact that’s often not the case.
  • Have all licenses waive database restrictions. This sounds attractive, but is mostly confusing — it’s very hard to discern when only database and not copyright restrictions apply, such that a licensee could ignore a license’s conditions — and like “tell database publishers to use CC0″ would just lead many to use different licenses that do purport to conditionally license database rights.
  • Have all licenses grant permissions around database restrictions, under whatever conditions are present in the license, just like copyright.

I think the last is the right approach, and it’s the one taken with the CC 4.0 licenses, as well as by other licenses which would not exist but for CC 3.0 licenses not taking this approach. I’m even more pleased with their generality, because other copyright-like restrictions are to be expected (emphasis added):

Copyright and Similar Rights means copyright and/or similar rights closely related to copyright including, without limitation, performance, broadcast, sound recording, and Sui Generis Database Rights, without regard to how the rights are labeled or categorized. For purposes of this Public License, the rights specified in Section 2(b)(1)-(2) are not Copyright and Similar Rights.

The exclusions of 2(b)(1)-(2) are a mixed bag; see moral and personality rights, and patents below.

CC0 also includes a definition with some generality:

Copyright and Related Rights include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. the right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform,
    display, communicate, and translate a Work;
  2. moral rights retained by the original author(s) and/or
    performer(s);
  3. publicity and privacy rights pertaining to a person’s
    image or likeness depicted in a Work;
  4. rights protecting against unfair competition in regards
    to a Work, subject to the limitations in paragraph 4(a),
    below;
  5. rights protecting the extraction, dissemination, use and
    reuse of data in a Work;
  6. database rights (such as those arising under Directive
    96/9/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11
    March 1996 on the legal protection of databases, and under
    any national implementation thereof, including any amended
    or successor version of such directive); and
  7. other similar, equivalent or corresponding rights
    throughout the world based on applicable law or treaty, and
    any national implementations thereof.

As does GPLv3:

“Copyright” also means copyright-like laws that apply to other kinds of works, such as semiconductor masks.

Do CC0 and CC 4.0 licenses cover semiconductor mask restrictions (best not to use for this purpose anyway, see patents)? Does GPLv3 cover database restrictions? I’d hope the answer is yes in each case, and if the answer is no or ambiguous, future licenses further improve on the generality of restrictions around which permissions are granted.

There is one risk in licensing everything possible, and culturally it seems, specifically in licensing database rights — the impression that licensee which do so ‘create obligations’ related to those rights. I find this an odd way to think of a conditional permission as the creation of an obligation, when the user’s situation without said permission is unambiguously worse, i.e., no permission. Further, this impression is a problem for non-maximally-permissive licenses around copyright, not only database or other copyright-like rights.

In my opinion the best a public license can do is to grant permissions (conditionally, if not a maximally permissive license) around restrictions with as much generality as possible, and expressly state that a license is not needed (and therefore conditions to not apply) if a user can ignore underlying restrictions for some other reason. Can the approach of CC version 4.0 licenses to the latter be improved?

For the avoidance of doubt, where Exceptions and Limitations apply to Your use, this Public License does not apply, and You do not need to comply with its terms and conditions.

These are all trivialities for license nerds. For publishers and users of databases: Data is free. Free the data!

Moral and personality rights

CC 4.0 licenses address them well:

Moral rights, such as the right of integrity, are not licensed under this Public License, nor are publicity, privacy, and/or other similar personality rights; however, to the extent possible, the Licensor waives and/or agrees not to assert any such rights held by the Licensor to the limited extent necessary to allow You to exercise the Licensed Rights, but not otherwise.

To understand just how well, CC 3.0 licenses say:

Except as otherwise agreed in writing by the Licensor or as may be otherwise permitted by applicable law, if You Reproduce, Distribute or Publicly Perform the Work either by itself or as part of any Adaptations or Collections, You must not distort, mutilate, modify or take other derogatory action in relation to the Work which would be prejudicial to the Original Author’s honor or reputation. Licensor agrees that in those jurisdictions (e.g. Japan), in which any exercise of the right granted in Section 3(b) of this License (the right to make Adaptations) would be deemed to be a distortion, mutilation, modification or other derogatory action prejudicial to the Original Author’s honor and reputation, the Licensor will waive or not assert, as appropriate, this Section, to the fullest extent permitted by the applicable national law, to enable You to reasonably exercise Your right under Section 3(b) of this License (right to make Adaptations) but not otherwise.

Patents and trademark

Prior versions were silent, CC 4.0 licenses state:

Patent and trademark rights are not licensed under this Public License.

Perhaps some potential licensor will be reassured, but I consider this unnecessary and slightly harmful, replicating the main deficiency of CC0. The explicit exclusion makes it harder to see an implied license. This is especially troublesome when CC licenses are used in fields in which patents can serve as a barrier. Software is one, for which CC has long disrecommended use of CC licenses largely because software is already well-covered by licenses with which CC licenses are mostly incompatible with; the explicit patent exclusion in the CC 4.0 licenses makes them even less suitable. Hardware design is another such field, but one with fragmented licensing, including use of CC licenses. CC should now explicitly disrecommend using CC licenses for hardware designs and declare CC-BY-SA-4.0 one-way compatible with GPLv3+ so that projects using one of the CC-BY-SA licenses for hardware designs have a clear path to a more appropriate license.

Patents of course can be licensed separately, and as I pointed out before regarding CC0, there could be curious arrangements for projects using such licenses with patent exclusions, such as only accepting contributions from Defensive Patent License users. But the better route for “open hardware” projects and the like to take advantage of this complementarity is to do both, that is use a copyright and related rights license that includes a patent peace clause, and join the DPL club.

DRM

CC 4.0 licenses:

The Licensor waives and/or agrees not to assert any right or authority to forbid You from making technical modifications necessary to exercise the Licensed Rights, including technical modifications necessary to circumvent Effective Technological Measures.

This is a nice addition, which had been previously suggested for CC 3.0 licenses and rejected — the concept copied from GPLv3 drafts at the time. I would have preferred to also remove the limited DRM prohibition in the CC licenses.

Attribution

The CC 4.0 licenses slightly streamline and clarify the substance of the attribution requirement, all to the good. The most important bit, itself only a slight streamlining and clarification of similar in previous versions:

You may satisfy the conditions in Section 3(a)(1) in any reasonable manner based on the medium, means, and context in which You Share the Licensed Material. For example, it may be reasonable to satisfy the conditions by providing a URI or hyperlink to a resource that includes the required information.

This pulls in the wild use from near zero to-the-letter compliance to fairly high.

I’m not fond of the requirement to remove attribution information if requested by the licensor, especially accurate information. I don’t know whether a licensor has ever made such a request, but that makes the clause only pointless rather than harmful. Not quite though, as it does make for a talking point.

NonCommercial

not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or private monetary compensation. For purposes of this Public License, the exchange of the Licensed Material for other material subject to Copyright and Similar Rights by digital file-sharing or similar means is NonCommercial provided there is no payment of monetary compensation in connection with the exchange.

Not intended to be a substantive change, but I’ll take it. I’d have preferred a probably more significantly narrowed definition and a re-branding so as to increase the range of and differentiation among the licenses that CC stewards. But at the beginning of the 4.0 licenses process, I expected no progress, so am not disappointed. Branding and other positioning changes could come post-launch, if anyone is so inclined.

I think the biggest failure of the range of licenses with an NC term (and there are many preceding CC) is not confusion and pollution of commons, very roughly the complaints of people who would like NC to have a more predictable meaning and those who think NC offers inadequate permissions, respectively, but lack of valuable use. Licenses with the NC term are certainly used for hundreds of millions of photos and web pages, and some (hundreds of?) thousands of songs, videos, and books, but few where either the licensor or the public gains significant value above what would have been achieved if the licensor had simply offered gratis access (i.e., put stuff on the web, which is incredibly valuable even with no permissions granted). As far as I know, NC licenses haven’t played a significant role in enabling (again, relative to gratis access) any disruptive product or policy, and their use by widely recognized artists and brands is negligible (cf. CC-BY-SA, which Wikipedia and other mass collaboration projects rely on to exist, and CC-BY and CC0, which are part of disruptive policy mandates).

CC is understandably somewhat stuck between free/open norms, which make licenses with the NC an embarrassment, and their numerically large but low value uses. A license steward or would-be steward that really believed a semicommons license regime could do much more would try to break out of this rut by doing a complete rethink of the product (or that part of the product line), probably resulting in something much more different from the current NC implementation than the mere definitional narrowing and rebranding that I started out preferring. This could be related to my commentary on innovation in “copyright choice” tools above; whether the two are really the same thing would be a subject for inquiry.

NoDerivatives

If there were licenses that should not have been brought to version 4.0, at least not under the CC brand, it would have been CC-BY-NC-ND and CC-BY-ND.

Instead, an express permission to make derivatives so long as they are not shared was added. This change makes so-called text/content/data mining of any work under any of the CC version 4.0 licenses unambiguously permitted, and makes ND stick out a tiny bit less as an aberration from the CC license suite modeling some moderate copyright reform baseline.

There are some costs to this approach: surprise that a “no derivatives” license permits derivatives, slight reduction in scope and differentiation among licenses that CC stewards, giving credence to ND licenses as acceptable for scholarship, and abetting the impression that text/content/data mining requires permission at all. The last is most worrisome, but (as with similar worries around licensing databases) can be turned into a positive to the extent CC and everyone knowledgeable emphasizes that you ought not and probably don’t need a license; we’re just making sure you have the freedoms around CC licensed works that you ought to have anyway, in case the info regulation regime gets even worse — but please, mine away.

ShareAlike

This is the most improved named (BY/NC/ND/SA) elements in CC 4.0 licenses, and the work is not done yet. But first, I wish it had been improved even more, by making more uses unambiguously “trigger” the SA provision. This has been done once, starting in 2.0:

For the avoidance of doubt, where the Work is a musical composition or sound recording, the synchronization of the Work in timed-relation with a moving image (“synching”) will be considered a Derivative Work for the purpose of this License.

The obvious next expansion would have been use of images (still or moving) in contextual relation to other material, eg illustrations used in a text. Without this expansion, CC-BY-SA and CC-BY-NC-SA are essentially identical to CC-BY and CC-BY-NC respectively for the vast majority of actual “reuse” instances. Such an expansion would have substantially increased the range of and differentiation among licenses that CC stewards. The main problem with such an expansion (apart from specifying it exactly) would be increasing the cost of incompatibility, where texts and images use different licenses. This problem would be mitigated by increasing compatibility among copyleft licenses (below), or could be eliminated by broadening the SA licensing requirement for uses triggered by expansion, eg any terms granting at least equivalent permissions, such that a CC-BY-SA illustration could still be used in a text licensed under CC-BY or CC0. Such an expansion did not make the cut, but I think together with aforementioned broadening of licensing requirements, such a modulation (neither strictly “stronger” nor “weaker”) would make for an interesting and heretofore unimplemented approach to copyleft, in some future license.

Apart from a subtle improvement that brings SA closer to a full “or later versions” license, and reflects usual practice and understanding (incidentally, “no sublicensing” in non-SA licenses remains pointless, is not to be found in most non-CC permissive licenses, and should not be replicated), the big improvements in CC 4.0 licenses with the SA element are the addition of the potential for one-way compatibility to CC-BY-SA, adding the same compatibility mechanism to CC-BY-NC-SA, and discussions with stewards of potentially compatible licenses which make the realization of compatibility more likely. (I would have included a variation on the more complex but in my view elegant and politically advisable mechanism introduced in MPL 2.0, which allows for continued use under the donor compatible license as long as possible. Nobody demanded such, so not adding the complexity was perhaps a good thing.)

I hope that in 2014 CC-BY-SA-4.0 will be declared bilaterally compatible with the Free Art License 1.3, or if a new FAL version is required, it is being worked on, with achieving bilateral compatibility as a hard requirement, and more importantly, that CC-BY-SA-4.0 is declared one-way compatible (as a donor) with GPLv3+. An immediate step toward those ends will be finalizing an additional statement of intent regarding the stewardship of licenses with the ShareAlike element.

Though I’ll be surprised if any license appears as a candidate for compatibility with CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0, adding the mechanism to that license is a good thing: as a matter of general license stewardship, reducing the barriers to someone else creating a better NC license (see above), and keeping “porting” completely outside the 4.0 license texts (hopefully there will be no porting, but if there is any, compatibility with the international versions in licenses with the SA element would be exclusively via the compatibility mechanism used for any potentially compatible license).

Tech

All license clauses have id attributes, allowing direct linking to a particular clause. These direct links are used for references within the licenses. These are big usability improvements.

I would have liked to see an expansive “tech” (including to some extent design) effort synchronized with the 4.0 licenses, from the practical (e.g., a canonical format for license texts, from which HTML, plain text, and others are generated; that may be HTML, but the current license HTML is inadequate for the task) to the impractical (except for increasing CC’s reputation, e.g., investigating whether any semantic annotation and structure, preferably building on existing research, would be useful, in theory, for the license texts, and possibly even a practical aid to translation), to testing further upgrades to the ‘legal user interface’ constituted by the license texts and “deed” summaries (e.g., combining these), to just bringing various CC tooling and documentation up to date with RDFa 1.1 Lite. But, some of these things could be done post-launch if anyone is so inclined, and my understanding is that CC has only a single technology person on staff, dedicated to creating other products, and most importantly, the ability to directly link to any license clause probably has more practical benefits than anything on my wishlist.

Readability

One of the best things about the CC 4.0 licenses is their increased understandability. This is corroborated by crude automated readability metrics below, but I suspect these do not adequately characterize the improvement, for they include three paragraphs of explanatory text not present in previous versions, probably don’t fully reflect the improvement of splitting hairball paragraphs into lists, and have no mechanism for accounting for how the improved usability of linking to individual clauses contributes to understandability.

CC-BY-NC-SA (the license with the most stuff in it, usually used as a drafting template for others) from version 1.0 through 4.0, including 4.0 drafts (lower numbers indicate better readability, except in the case of Flesch; Chars/(Flesch>=1) is my gross metric for how painful it is to read a document; see license automated readability metrics for an explanation):

SHA1 License Characters Kincaid ARI Coleman-Liau Fog Lix SMOG Flesch Chars/(Flesch>=1)
39b2ef67be9e5b4e743e5269a31ad1691515eede CC-BY-NC-SA-1.0 10228 13.3 16.3 14.2 17.0 59.7 14.2 48.4 211
5800ac2d32e35ace035cdcae693423cd9ff5bb6f CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 11927 13.3 16.2 14.7 17.1 60.0 14.4 47.0 253
e5f44c2df6b1391d1ddb6efb2db6f90670e4ae67 CC-BY-NC-SA-2.5 12013 13.1 16.0 14.6 16.9 59.6 14.2 47.7 251
a63b7e81e7b9e30df5d253aed1d2991af47992df CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0 17134 16.4 19.7 14.2 20.6 67.0 16.3 38.8 441
8b36c30ed0510d9ca9c69a2ef826b9fd52992474 by-nc-sa-4.0d1 12465 13.0 15.0 14.9 16.3 57.4 14.0 43.9 283
4a87c7af5cde7729e2e456ee0e8958f8632e3005 by-nc-sa-4.0d2 11583 13.1 14.8 14.2 16.8 56.2 14.4 44.7 259
bb6f239f7b39343d62440bff00de24da2b3d256f by-nc-sa-4.0d3 14422 14.1 15.8 15.1 18.2 61.0 15.4 38.6 373
cf5629ae38a745f4f9eca429f7b26af2e71eb109 by-nc-sa-4.0d4 14635 13.8 15.6 15.5 17.8 60.2 15.2 38.6 379
a5e1b9829fd287cbe255df71eb9a5aad7fb19dbc by-nc-sa-4.0d4v2 14808 14.0 15.8 15.5 18.0 60.6 15.2 38.1 388
887f9a5da675cf681421eab3ac6d61f82cf34971 CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0 14577 13.1 14.7 15.7 17.1 58.6 14.7 40.1 363

Versions 1.0 through 4.0 of each of the six CC licenses brought to version 4.0, and CC0:

SHA1 License Characters Kincaid ARI Coleman-Liau Fog Lix SMOG Flesch Chars/(Flesch>=1)
74286ae0dfea38c489437bf659b209737945145c CC0-1.0 5116 16.2 19.5 15.0 19.5 66.3 15.6 36.8 139
c766cc6d5e63277e46a3d83c6254e3528082587b CC-BY-1.0 8867 12.6 15.5 14.1 16.4 57.8 13.8 51.3 172
bf23729bec8ffd0de4d319fb33395c595c5c762b CC-BY-2.0 9781 12.1 14.9 14.3 16.1 56.7 13.7 51.9 188
024bb6d37d0a17624cf532bd14fbd42e15c5a963 CC-BY-2.5 9867 11.9 14.7 14.2 15.8 56.3 13.6 52.6 187
20dc61b94cfe1f4ba5814b340095b4c3fa23e801 CC-BY-3.0 14956 16.1 19.4 14.1 20.4 66.1 16.2 40.0 373
00b29551deee9ced874ffb9d29379b92f1487045 CC-BY-4.0 13003 13.0 14.5 15.4 16.9 57.9 14.6 41.1 316
e0c4b13ec5f9b5702d2e8b88d98b803e07d65cf8 CC-BY-NC-1.0 9313 13.2 16.2 14.3 17.0 59.3 14.1 49.3 188
970421995789d2e8189bb12071ab838a3fcf2a1a CC-BY-NC-2.0 10635 13.1 16.1 14.6 17.2 59.5 14.4 48.1 221
08773bb9bc13959c6f00fd49fcc081d69bda2744 CC-BY-NC-2.5 10721 12.9 15.8 14.5 16.9 59.0 14.2 48.9 219
9639556280637272ace081949f2a95f9153c0461 CC-BY-NC-3.0 15732 16.5 19.9 14.1 20.8 67.2 16.4 38.7 406
afcbb9791897e1e2f949d9d56ba64164746e0828 CC-BY-NC-4.0 13520 13.2 14.8 15.6 17.2 58.6 14.8 39.8 339
9ab2a3818e6ccefbc6ffdd48df7ecaec25e32e41 CC-BY-NC-ND-1.0 8729 12.7 15.8 14.4 16.4 58.6 13.8 51.0 171
966c97357e3b529e9c8bb8166fbb871c5bc31211 CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 10074 13.0 16.1 14.7 17.0 59.7 14.3 48.8 206
c659a0e3a5ee8eba94aec903abdef85af353f11f CC-BY-NC-ND-2.5 10176 12.8 15.9 14.6 16.8 59.2 14.2 49.3 206
ad4d3e6d1fb6f89bbd28a44e263a89430b575dfa CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0 14356 16.3 19.7 14.1 20.5 66.8 16.2 39.7 361
68960bdf512ff5219909f932b8a81fdb255b4642 CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0 13350 13.3 14.8 15.7 17.2 58.4 14.8 39.4 338
39b2ef67be9e5b4e743e5269a31ad1691515eede CC-BY-NC-SA-1.0 10228 13.3 16.3 14.2 17.0 59.7 14.2 48.4 211
5800ac2d32e35ace035cdcae693423cd9ff5bb6f CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 11927 13.3 16.2 14.7 17.1 60.0 14.4 47.0 253
e5f44c2df6b1391d1ddb6efb2db6f90670e4ae67 CC-BY-NC-SA-2.5 12013 13.1 16.0 14.6 16.9 59.6 14.2 47.7 251
a63b7e81e7b9e30df5d253aed1d2991af47992df CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0 17134 16.4 19.7 14.2 20.6 67.0 16.3 38.8 441
887f9a5da675cf681421eab3ac6d61f82cf34971 CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0 14577 13.1 14.7 15.7 17.1 58.6 14.7 40.1 363
e4851120f7e75e55b82a2c007ed98ffc962f5fa9 CC-BY-ND-1.0 8280 12.3 15.5 14.3 16.1 57.9 13.6 52.4 158
f1aa9011714f0f91005b4c9eb839bdb2b4760bad CC-BY-ND-2.0 9228 11.9 14.9 14.5 15.8 56.9 13.5 52.7 175
5f665a8d7ac1b8fbf6b9af6fa5d53cecb05a1bd3 CC-BY-ND-2.5 9330 11.8 14.7 14.4 15.6 56.5 13.4 53.2 175
3fb39a1e46419e83c99e4c9b6731268cbd1591cd CC-BY-ND-3.0 13591 15.8 19.2 14.1 20.0 65.6 15.9 41.2 329
ac747a640273815cf3a431be0afe4ec5620493e3 CC-BY-ND-4.0 12830 13.0 14.4 15.4 16.9 57.6 14.6 40.7 315
dda55573a1a3a80d294b1bb9e1eeb3a6c722968c CC-BY-SA-1.0 9779 13.1 16.1 14.2 16.8 59.1 14.0 49.5 197
9cceb80d865e52462983a441904ef037cf3a4576 CC-BY-SA-2.0 11044 12.5 15.3 14.4 16.2 57.9 13.8 50.2 220
662ca9fce7fed61439fcbc27ca0d6db0885718d9 CC-BY-SA-2.5 11130 12.3 15.0 14.4 16.0 57.5 13.6 50.9 218
4a5bb64814336fb26a9e5d36f22896ce4d66f5e0 CC-BY-SA-3.0 17013 16.4 19.8 14.1 20.5 67.2 16.2 38.9 437
8632363dcc2c9fc44f582b14274259b3a35744b2 CC-BY-SA-4.0 14041 12.9 14.4 15.4 16.8 57.8 14.5 41.4 339

It’s good for automated readability metrics that from 3.0 to 4.0 CC-BY-SA is most improved (the relevant clause was a hairball paragraph; CC-BY-NC-SA should have improved less, as it gained the compatibility mechanism) and CC-BY-ND is least improved (it gained express permission for private adaptations).

Next

I leave a list of recommendations (many already mingled in or implied by above) to a future post. But really, just use CC0.

Software Patent NATO, 1993

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

In my thoughts on the Defensive Patent License, I neglected to note in the history section a similar proposal made in 1993 by John Walker, founder of Autodesk, PATO: Collective Security In the Age of Software Patents:

[T]he trend toward increased litigation, constraining innovation in the software industry, is accelerating. The U.S. government is using trade negotiations to force other countries to institute software patents in their own markets.

While eliminating software patents would be the best solution, changing the law takes a long time and is uncertain to succeed. I’ve been trying to puzzle out how the software industry might rescue itself from immolation through litigation and came up with the following proposal.

Could have been written in 2013.

I’ve been thinking about using NATO as a model of a patent defence consortium. Suppose a bunch of big software companies (perhaps led by Oracle, who’s already taken the point on this) were to form PATO–Patent And Technology Organisation–and contribute all their current software patents, and all new software patents they were granted as long as they remained a member of PATO, to its “cross-licensing pool”. To keep the lawyers and shareholders from going nuts, the patents would be licensed through PATO but would remain the property of the member–a member could withdraw with appropriate notice and take the patents back from the pool.

Any member of PATO would be granted an automatic, royalty-free license to use any patent in the cross-licensing pool. Thus, by putting your patents in the pool, you obtain access to all the others automatically (but if you withdraw and pull your patents, of course you then become vulnerable for those you’ve used, which creates a powerful disincentive to quit).

The basic principle of NATO is that an attack on any member is considered an attack on all members. In PATO it works like this–if any member of PATO is alleged with infringement of a software patent by a non-member, then that member may counter-sue the attacker based on infringement of any patent in the PATO cross-licensing pool, regardless of what member contributed it. Once a load of companies and patents are in the pool, this will be a deterrent equivalent to a couple thousand MIRVs in silos–odds are that any potential plaintiff will be more vulnerable to 10 or 20 PATO patents than the PATO member is to one patent from the aggressor. Perhaps the suit will just be dropped and the bad guy will decide to join PATO….

Differences with the DPL, two decades hence:

  • PATO was to cover software patents only; a challenge to define.
  • PATO members could counter-sue attackers with patents from any other member; I have no idea whether this is legally feasible.
  • PATO never moved beyond raw idea stage, as far as I know, while legal work on the DPL has gone on for a few years, DPL 1.0 is complete, and the project is set for a public launch in February.

In 1993, software patents were new, and still opposed by Oracle and Microsoft. Since then both have become software patent aggressors and defend the idea of software patents.

Many companies that claim to dislike software patent aggression in 2013 will become aggressors over the next years, or their patents will be obtained and used by trolls and other aggressors. Becoming a DPL user now may be an effective way for such companies to avoid this fate, and avoid contributing to the stifling of equality, freedom, and innovation.

Addendum 20131202: Another difference between the PATO sketch and the DPL implementation is that the former includes “US$25/year” to be a member, while the latter is gratis. I assume that the nascent DPL Foundation will be able to attract adequate grants and other support, perhaps more than could be obtained through a membership fee, but the choice is at the least an interesting and important one.

Upgrade to CC-BY(-(NC(-(ND|SA))?|ND|SA))?-4\.0

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Today Creative Commons released version 4.0 of six* of its licenses, with many improvements over version 3.0, after more than two years of work. I’ll write more about those details later. But you should skip right past 4.0 and upgrade to CC’s premier legal product, CC0. This is the case whether you’re looking to adopt a CC license for the first time, or to upgrade from version 1.0, 2.0, 2.1, 2.5, or 3.0.

Let’s review the named conditions present in some or all of the CC 4.0 licenses, and why unconditional CC0 is better.

Don’t forget unmitigated © in the basement.

Attribution (BY). Do not take part in the debasement of attribution, and more broadly, provenance, already useful to readers, communities of practice, and publishers, by making them seem mere objects of copyright license compliance. If attribution is useful, it will be provided. If not, robots will find out. Rarely does anyone comply with the exact legal requirements of the attribution term anyway, and as a licensor, you probably won’t provide the information needed by licensees to easily comply. Plus, the corresponding icon looks like a men’s bathroom sign.

NonCommercial (NC). Sounds nice, but nobody knows what it means. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why NC licensed works are often used by for-profit entities, including with advertising, while NC licensed works are verboten for many community and non-profit projects, most prominently Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects. (Because commercial entities know there is very low risk of being sued for non-compliance, and can manage risk, while community projects tend to draw and follow bright lines. Perhaps community projects ought to be able to manage risk, and that they can’t is a demonstration of their relative lack of institutional sophistication…but that’s another topic!)

NoDerivatives (ND). This term has no business being in the “Creative Commons” license suite, but sadly still is. If you don’t want to contribute to a creative commons, don’t. If you’d like to, but think copyright (through withholding permission to share adaptations, i.e., the ND term) will prevent people from misrepresenting you, you’re wrong, committing an act of hate toward free speech, and undermining the potential of voluntary license practice to align with and support an obvious baseline objective for copyright reform: noncommercial sharing and remix should always be legal.

ShareAlike (SA). Also sounds nice, and I am a frequent apologist and sometime advocate for the underlying idea, copyleft. But SA is a weak implementation of copyleft. It isn’t “triggered” by the most common use of CC-licensed material (contextual illustration, not full remix), and it has no regulatory condition not present in non-SA CC licenses (cf GPL, which requires sharing source for a work, and is usable for any work; if you care about copyleft, tell CC to finish making CC-BY-SA one-way compatible with GPL). And the SA implementation retains the costs of copyleft: blank stares of incomprehension, even from people who have worked in the “open” world for over a decade, and occasionally intense fear and dislike (the balance is a bit different in the software world, but this is my direct experience among non-software putatively open organizations and people); also, compatibility problems. It’s time to take the unsolicited advice often given to incumbents and others fearful of the internet: ‘obscurity is a greater threat than piracy’ — and apply it: ‘obscurity is a greater threat than proprietarization.’


Upgrade to CC0!

CC0 isn’t perfect, but it is by far the best tool provided by CC. I have zero insight into the future of the CC organization, but I hope it gives ample priority to the public domain, post-4.0 launch.

*CC-BY(-(NC(-(ND|SA))?|ND|SA))?-4\.0 is a regular expression matching all six licenses released today.

Hierarchy of mechanisms for limiting copyright and copyright-like barriers to use of Public Sector Information, or More or Less Universal Government License(s)

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

This sketch is in part motivated by a massive proliferation of copyright and copyright-like licenses for government/public sector information, e.g., sub- and sub-sub-national jurisdiction licenses and sector- and jurisdiction-specific licenses intended to combat license proliferation within a sector within a jurisdiction. Also by longstanding concern about coordination among entities working to limit barriers to use of PSI and knowledge commons governance generally.

Everything following concerns PSI only relative to copyright and copyright-like barriers. There are other pertinent regulations and considerations to follow when publishing or using PSI (e.g., privacy and fraud; as these are pertinent even without copyright, it is silly and unnecessarily complicating to include them in copyright licenses) and other important ways to make PSI more useful technically and politically (e.g., open formats, focusing on PSI that facilitates accountability rather than openwashing).

Eliminate copyright and copyright-like restrictions

No longer barriers to use of PSI, because no longer barriers to use of information. May be modulated down to any general copyright or copyright-like barrier reduction, where the barrier is pertinent to use of PSI. Examples: eliminate sui generis database restrictions where they exist, increase threshold of originality required for information to be subject to copyright restriction, expand exceptions and limitations to copyright restrictions, expand affirmative user rights.

Eliminate copyright and copyright-like restrictions for PSI

For example, works produced by employees of the U.S. federal government are not subject to copyright restrictions in the U.S. Narrower exclusions from copyright restrictions (e.g., of laws, court rulings) are fairly common worldwide. These could be generalized to include eliminate copyright and copyright-like restrictions for PSI, worldwide, and expanded to include PSI produced by contractors or other non-government but publicly funded entities. PSI could be expanded to include any information produced with public funding, e.g., research and culture funded by public grants.

“Standard” international licenses for PSI

Public copyright licenses not specifically intended for only PSI are often used for PSI, and could be more. CC0 is by far the best such license, but other Creative Commons (CC) and Open Data Commons (ODC) licenses are frequently used. Depending on the extent to which the licenses used leave copyright and copyright-like restrictions in place (e.g., CC0: none; CC-BY-NC-ND, lots, thus considered non-open) and how they are applied (from legislative mandate for all PSI to one-off use for individual reports and datasets at discretion of agency), could have effect similar to eliminating copyright and copyright-like restrictions for PSI, or almost zero effect.

Universal Government License

Governments at various levels have chosen to make up their own licenses rather than use a standard international license. Some of the better reasons for doing so will be eliminated by the forthcoming version 4.0 of 6 of the CC licenses (though again, CC0 has been the best choice, since 2009, and will remain so). But some of the less good reasons (uncharitable characterization: vanity) can’t be addressed by a standard international license, and furthermore seem to be driving the proliferation of sub-sub-national licenses, down to licenses specific to an individual town.

Ideally this extreme license proliferation trend would terminate with mass implementation of one of the above options, though this seems unlikely in the short term. Maybe yet another standard license would help! The idea of an “open government license” which various governments would have a direct role in creating and stewarding has been casually discussed in the past, particularly several years ago when the current proliferation was just beginning, the CC 4.0 effort had not begun, and CC and ODC were not on the same page. Nobody is particularly incented to make this unwieldy project happen, but nor is it an impossibility — due to the relatively small world of NGOs (such as CC and the Open Knowledge Foundation, of which ODC is a project) and government people who really care and know about public licenses, and the possibility their collective exhaustion and exasperation over license details, incompatibility, and proliferation could reach a tipping point into collective action. There’s a lot to start from, including the research that went into CC-BY-4.0, and the OGL UK 2.0, which is a pretty good open license.

But why think small? How many other problems could be addressed simultaneously?

  • Defend the traditional meaning of ‘open government’ by calling the license something else, e.g., Universal/Uniform/Unified Government License.
  • Rallying point for public sector worldwide to commit more firmly and broadly to limiting copyright and copyright-like barriers to use of PSI, more rapidly establishing global norm, and leading to mandates. The one thing to be said for massive PSI license proliferation could be increased commitment from proliferating jurisdictions to use their custom licenses (I know of no data on this). A successful UGL would swamp any increased local commitment due to local vanity licenses through much higher level expectation and mandate.
  • Make the license work well for software (including being approved by the Open Source Initiative), as:
    • Generically “open” licenses are inevitably used for software, whether the steward apparently intends this (OGL UK 2.0) or does not (CC).
    • The best modern permissive license for software (Apache 2.0) is relatively long and unreadable for what it does, and has an discomfiting name (not nearly as bad as certain pro sports organizations, but still); it ought be superseded.
  • Ensure the license works for other domains, e.g., open hardware, which don’t really require domain-specific licenses, are headed down the path of proliferation and incompatibility, and that governments have obvious efficiency, regulatory, security, and welfare interests in.
  • Foster broader “open innovation community” engagement with government and public policy and vice versa, and more knowledge transfer across OIC domains, on legal instruments at the least.
  • Uniform Public License may be a better name than UGL in some respects (whatever the name, it ought be usable by the public sector, and the general public), but Government may be best overall, a tip of the hat to both the vision within governments that would be necessary to make the license succeed, and to the nature of copyright and copyright-like barriers as government regulatory regimes.

National jurisdiction licenses for PSI

A more likely mechanism for license proliferation deceleration and harm reduction in the near term is for governments within a national jurisdiction to use a single license, and follow various license stewardship and use best practices. Leigh Dodds recently blogged about the problem and highlighted this mechanism in a post titled The Proliferation of Open Government Licences.

Sub-national jurisdiction licenses for PSI

Each province/state and sub-jurisdiction thereof, down to towns and local districts, could use its own vanity license. This appears to be the trend in Canada. It would be possible to push further in this direction with multiple vanity licenses per jurisdiction, e.g., various licenses for various kinds of data, reports, and other materials.

Licenses for each PSI dataset or other work

Each and every government dataset or other publication could come with its own bespoke license. Though these licenses would grant permissions around some copyright and copyright-like restrictions, I suspect their net effect would be to heighten copyright and copyright-like restrictions as a barrier to both the use and publication of PSI, on an increased cost basis alone. This extreme highlights one of the downsides of copyright licenses, even unambiguously open ones — implementing, understanding, and using them can be seen as significant cost centers, creating an additional excuse for not opening materials, and encouraging the small number of people who really understand the mechanisms to be jealous and wary of any other reform.

None

Included for completeness.

Privatization of PSI copyright

Until now, I’ve assumed that copyright and copyright-like restrictions are barriers to use of PSI. But maybe there aren’t enough restrictions, or they aren’t allocated to the right entities, such that maximum value is realized from use of PSI. Control of copyright and copyright-like restrictions in PSI could be auctioned off to entities with the highest ability to extract rents from PSI users. These businesses could be government-owned, with various public-private partnerships in between. This would increase the direct contribution of PSI to GDP, incent the creation and publication of more PSI, ensure PSI is maintained and marketed, reaching citizens that can affordneed it, and provide a solid business model for Government 2.0, academia, cultural heritage, and all other publicly funded and publicly interested sectors, which would otherwise fail to produce an optimal level of PSI and related materials and innovations.

Do not let any of the above trick you into paying more attention to possible copyright and copyright-like barriers and licenses than actually doing stuff, especially with PSI, especially with “data”, doubly with “government data”.

I agree with Denny Vrandečić’s paradoxical sounding but correct directive:

Data is free. Free the data!

I tried to communicate the same in a chapter of the Data Journalism Handbook, but lacked the slogan.

Data is free. Free the data!

And what is not data? ☻

Addendum: Entirely by coincidence (in response to a European Commission consultation on PSI, which I had already forgotten about), today posts by Timothy Vollmer for the Communia Association and Creative Commons call out the license proliferation problem and endorse public domain as the default for PSI.

Innovation Pending

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Does the U.S. Patent System Stifle Innovation? Pro: Christopher Kelty, Laura Sydell. Con: Jaz Banga, Scott Snibbe. Moderator: Eric Goldman. Video:

The moderator was by far the best performer. Watch above, or read his introduction and audience voting instructions.

The pro side’s opening statement was funny, involving the definition of “stifle”, freedom as the oxygen of innovation, and innovation occurring within the iron lungs of large corporations, due to the patent system. Otherwise they stuck to a narrow argument: the current U.S. patent system is beset by trolls (Sydell was a reporter for When Patents Attack and II) and lawsuits and some would-be inventors do give up after realizing they are in a heavily patented field, ergo, the U.S. patent system stifles innovation.

The con side often seemed to make contradictory arguments that didn’t support their side. At one point the moderator interrupted to ask if they were really making a claim they seemed to be; nobody was phased, though I could swear at various points the pro side was looking incredulously at the con side (the recording is at the wrong angle to really see). But their fundamental argument was that there’s lots of innovation happening, patents and IP generally are American as apple pie, and trolls, while bad, aren’t a big deal for companies like Apple with many billions of dollars, ergo, the U.S. patent system does not stifle innovation.

The audience voted for the con side.

In my previous post noting that this debate was coming up, I concluded with “I hope they also consider equality and freedom.” They did a bit with regard to innovators — “freedom to innovate” and how “small” and “large” innovators fare in the system. But I had in mind expanding the discourse to include the effects of innovation policy on the freedom and equality of all humans.

“Patent” and “stifle” were expertly and humorously defined by Goldman and Kelty, but “innovation” remained undefined. The closest the debate came to exploring the contours of what innovation means, or ought mean, may have been in points made about the triviality of some patents, and the contrast between “small” and “large” innovators. Is innovation ‘done in a fashion that has served to maximize the patent encumbrances’ so it can be controlled by Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Monsanto, et al, the innovation we want?

Both the pro and con sides seemed to dislike patent trolls (while disagreeing on their importance). I wonder if any of the participants (particularly the con side) will endorse, or better yet, sign up for the Defensive Patent License (my discussion)? Or any of the other reforms reviewed by Goldman in Fixing Software Patents?

The debate was part of ZERO1 Garage’s Patent Pending exhibition, open through December 20. Each of the exhibited works is somehow related to a patent held or filed for by the artist.

One patent related to a work is pending, thus the work required an NDA for viewing:

nda

The handful of people I showed this image to were each appalled. But, in the context of the show, I have to admit it is cute. And, perhaps unintended, a critique of patent theory — which claims that patents encourage revelation.

Each of the pieces is interesting to experience. I particularly enjoyed the sounds made and shadows cast by (con side debater) Snibbe’s fan work (controlled by blowing through a smaller fan):

fans

My only disappointment from the exhibition is that there wasn’t a touching sample of these bricks, apparently made in part from fungus:

fungus brick

Bonus link: Discussions On The Abolition Of Patents In The UK, France, Germany And The Netherlands, From 1869. As I’ve mentioned before, these debates are nothing new, though it’s popular even for “reformers” to claim that current innovation policy is somehow mismatched with the “digital age”. The only difference between old and current debates is that the public interest is far more buried in the current ones.

Defensive Patent License 1.0 birthday

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

Defensive Patent License version 1.0 turned 0 yesterday. The Internet Archive held a small celebration. The FAQ says the license may be used now:

Sign up and start using the DPL by emailing defensivepatent@gmail.com.

There will be a launch conference 2014-02-2811-07 in Berkeley: gratis registration. By that time I gather there should be a list of launch DPL users, a website for registering and tracking DPL users, and a non-profit organization to steward the license, for which the Internet Archive will serve as a 501(c)3 fiscal sponsor.

Loosely organized thoughts follow. But in short:

  • DPL users grant a royalty free license (except for the purpose of cloning products) for their entire patent portfolio, to all other DPL users. This grant is irrevocable, unless the licensee (another DPL user) withdraws from the DPL or initiates patent litigation against any DPL user — but note that the withdrawing or aggressing entity’s grant of patents to date to all other DPL users remains in force forever.
  • Participation is on an entity basis, i.e., a DPL user is an organization or individual. All patents held or gained while a DPL user are included. But the irrevocable license to other DPL users then travels with individual patents, even when transferred to a non-DPL user entity.
  • An entity doesn’t need any patents to become a DPL user.
  • DPL doesn’t replace or conflict with patent peace provisions in modern free/open source licenses (e.g., Apache2, GPLv3, MPL2); it’s a different, complementary approach.
  • It may take years for the pool of DPL users’ patents to be significant enough to gain strong network effects and become a no-brainer for businesses in some industries to join. It may never. But it seems possible, and well worth trying.
  • Immediately, DPL seems like something for organizations that want to make a strong commitment, but a narrow one (only to others making the commitment), to patent non-aggression, ought to get on board with. Entities that want to make a broader commitment, including those that have already made complementary commitments through free/open source licenses or non-aggression pledges for certain uses (e.g., implementing a standard), should also get on board.

History

Last year I’d read Protecting Open Innovation: The Defensive Patent License as a New Approach to Patent Threats, Transaction Costs, and Tactical Disarmament (by Jennifer Urban and Jason Schultz, also main authors of the DPL 1.0) with interest and skepticism, and sent some small comments to the authors. The DPL 1.0, available for use now, incorporates some changes suggested in A Response to a Proposal for a Defensive Patent License (DPL) (and probably elsewhere; quite a few people worked on the license). Both papers are pretty good reads for understanding the idea and some of the choices made in DPL 1.0.

Two new things I learned yesterday are that the DPL was Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle’s idea, and work on the license started in 2009. Kahle had been disturbed that patents with his name on them that he had been told were obtained for defensive purposes while an engineer at Thinking Machines, were later used offensively by an entity that had acquired the patents. This made him wonder if there could be a way for an entity to commit to using patents only defensively. Kahle acknowledged that others have had similar ideas, but the DPL is now born, and it just may be the idea that works.

(No specific previous ideas were mentioned, but a recent one that comes to mind is Paul Graham’s 2011 suggestion of a pledge to not initiate patent litigation against organizations with fewer that 25 employees. Intentionally imprecise, not legally binding, and offering no benefit other than appearing on a web page, probably not surprising it didn’t take off. Another is Twitter’s Innovator’s Patent Agreement (2012), in which a company promises an employee to seek their permission for any non-defensive uses of patents in the employee’s name; unclear uptake. Additional concepts are covered at End Soft Patents.)

Kahle, Urban, and Schultz acknowledged inspiration from the private ordering/carving out of free spaces (for what Urban and Schulz call “open innovation communities” to practice) through public licenses such as the GPL and various Creative Commons licenses. But the DPL is rather different in a few big ways (and details which fall out of these):

  1. Subject of grant: patent vs. copyright
  2. Scope of grant: all subject rights controlled by an entity vs individual things (patents or works subject to copyright)
  3. Offered to: club participants vs. general public

I guess there will be a tendency to assume the second and third follow strictly from the first. I’m not so sure — I can imagine free/open source software and/or free culture/open content/data worlds which took the entity and club paths (still occasionally suggested) — and I think the assumption would under-appreciate the creativity of the DPL.

DPL and free/open source software

The DPL is not replacement for patent clauses in free/open source licenses, which are conditions of public copyright licenses with different subject, scope, and audience (see previous). Additionally, the DPL’s non-grant for cloning products, which I do not understand the scope of, probably further reduces any overlap between modern FLOSS license patent provisions and the DPL that may exist. But, I see no conflict, and some complementarity.

A curiosity would be DPL users releasing software under free software licenses without patent provisions, or even with explicit patent non-grants, like CC0. A complementary curiosity would be free/source projects which only accept contributions from DPL users. Yet another would be a new software license only granting copyright permissions to DPL users (this would almost certainly not be considered free/open source), or releasing DPL users from some license conditions (this could be done as an exception to an existing license).

The DPL isn’t going to directly solve any patent problems faced by free/open source software (e.g., encumbered ‘standards’) any time soon. But, to the extent the DPL decreases the private value (expected rents) of patents and encourages more entities to not see patents as useful for collecting rents, this ought push the problems faced away, just a bit. Even if software patents were to evaporate tomorrow (as they should!), users of free/open source software would encounter patents impacted all sorts of devices running said software; patents would still be a problem for software freedom.

I hope that many free/open source software entities become DPL users, for the possible slowly accruing benefits above, but also to make common cause with others fighting for (or reforming slightly towards) intellectual freedom. Participation in broader discourse by free/open source software entities is a must, for the health of free software, and the health of free societies.

End Soft Patents’ entry on the DPL will probably be a good place to check years hence on how the DPL is viewed from the perspective of free/open source software.

DPL “enforcement”

In one sense, the DPL requires no enforcement — it is a grant of permission, which one either takes or not by also becoming a DPL user. But, although it contains provisions to limit obvious gaming, if it becomes significant, doubtless some entities will try to push its boundaries, perhaps by obfuscating patent ownership, or interpreting “cloning” expansively. Or, the ability to leave with 180 days notice could prove to be a gaping hole, with entities taking advantage of the pool until they are ready to file a bunch of patents. Or, the lack of immediate termination of licenses from all DPL users and the costliness of litigation may mean the DPL pool does little to restrain DPL users from leaving, or worse, initiating litigation (or threatening to do so, or some other extortion) against other DPL users.

Perhaps the DPL Foundation with a public database of DPL users will play a strong coordinating function, facilitating uncovering obfuscated ownership, disseminating notice of bad behavior, and revocation of licenses to litigators and leavers.

DPL copyleft?

In any discussion of X remotely similar to free/open source software, the question of “what is copyleft for X?” comes up — and one of the birthday presenters mentioned that the name DPL is a hat tip to the GPL — is the DPL “copyleft for patents”?

It does have reciprocality — only DPL users get DPL grants from other DPL users. I will be surprised if at some point someone doesn’t pejoratively say the DPL is “viral” — because the license to DPL users stays with patents even if they are transferred to a non-DPL user entity. A hereditary effect more directly analogous to the GPL might involve a grant conditioned on an licensee’s other patents which read on the licensed patent being similarly licensed, but this seems ineffective at first blush (and has been thought of and discarded innumerable times).

The DPL doesn’t have a regulatory side. Forced revelation, directly analogous to the GPL’s primary regulatory side, would be the obvious thing to investigate for a DPL flavor, but the most naive requirement (entity must reveal all patentable inventions in order to remain a DPL user in good standing) would be nearly impossible to comply with, or enforce. It may be more feasible to require revelation of designs and documentation for products or services (presumably source code, for software) that read on any patents in the DPL pool. This would constitute a huge compliance and enforcement challenge, and probably very difficult to bootstrap a significant pool, but would be an extremely interesting regulatory experiment if it gained any traction.

DPL “Troll-proof”?

The slogan must be taken with a mountain of salt. Still, the DPL, if widely adopted, would mitigate the troll problem. Because grants to DPL users are irrevocable, and follow a patent upon changes of ownership, any patent with a grant to DPL users will be less valuable for a troll to acquire, because there are fewer entities for the troll to sue. To the extent DPL adoption reduces patenting in an industry, or overall, there will be less ammunition available for trolls to buy and use to hold anyone up. In the extreme of success, all practicing entities become DPL users. Over a couple decades, the swamp is drained.

Patents are still bad

The only worrisome thing I heard yesterday (and I may have missed some nuance) was the idea that it is unfortunate that many engineers, and participants in open innovation communities in particular, see patents as unethical, and that as free/open source software people learned to use public copyright licenses (software was not subject to copyright until 30-40 years ago), they and others should learn to use appropriate patent tools, i.e., the DPL.

First, the engagement of what has become free/open source software, open access, open data, etc., with copyright tools, has not gone swimmingly. Yes, much success is apparent, but compared to what? The costs beg to be analyzed: isolation, conservatism, internal fighting, gaming of tools used, disengagement from policy and boundary-pushing, reduction (and stunting) of ethics to license choice. My ideal, as hinted above, would be for engagement with the DPL to help open innovation communities escape this trap, rather than adding to its weight.

Second, in part because extreme “drain the swamp” level of success is almost certainly not going to be achieved, abolition (of software patents) is the only solution. And beyond software, the whole system should be axed. Of course this means not merely defending innovators, including open innovation communities, from some expense and litigation, but moving freedom and equality to the top of our innovation policy ordering.

DPL open infrastructure?

I hope, in part to make the DPL attractive to existing open innovation communities, I really hope the DPL Foundation will make everything it does free and open with traditional public copyright and publishing tools;

  • Open content: the website and all documentation ought be licensed under CC0 (though CC-BY or CC-BY-SA would be acceptable).
  • Open source/open service: source code of the eventual website, including applications for tracking DPL users, should be developed in a public repository, and licensed under either Apache2 or AGPLv3 (latter if the Foundation wishes to force those using the software elsewhere to reveal their modifications).
  • Open data: all data concerning DPL users, licensed patents, etc., should be machine-readable, downloadable in bulk, and released under CC0.

DPL readability

I found the DPL surprisingly brief and readable. My naive guess, given a description of how it works, would have been something far longer and more inscrutable. But the DPL actually compares to public licenses very favorably on automated readability metrics. Table below shows these for DPL 1.0 and some well known public copyright licenses (lower numbers indicate better readability, except in the case of Flesch; Chars/(Flesch>=1) is my gross metric for how painful it is to read a document; see license automated readability metrics for an explanation):

SHA1 License Characters Kincaid ARI Coleman-Liau Fog Lix SMOG Flesch Chars/(Flesch>=1)
8ffe2c5c25b85e52f42fcde68c2cf6a88b7abd69 Apache-2.0 8310 16.8 19.8 15.1 20.7 64.6 16.6 33.6 247
20dc61b94cfe1f4ba5814b340095b4c3fa23e801 CC-BY-3.0 14956 16.1 19.4 14.1 20.4 66.1 16.2 40.0 373
bbf850220781d9423be9e478fbc07098bfd2b5ad DPL-1.0 8256 15.1 18.9 15.7 18.4 65.9 15.0 40.6 203
0473f7b5cf37740d7170f29232a0bd088d0b16f0 GPL-2.0 13664 13.3 16.2 12.5 16.2 57.0 12.7 52.9 258
d4ec7d0b46077b89870c66cb829457041cd03e8d GPL-3.0 27588 13.7 16.0 13.3 16.8 57.5 13.8 47.2 584
78fe0ed5d283fd1df26be9b4afe8a82124624180 MPL-2.0 11766 14.7 16.9 14.5 17.9 60.5 14.9 40.1 293

Automated readability metrics are probably at best an indicator for license drafters, but offer no guidance on actually improving readability. Last month Luis Villa (incidentally, on the DPL’s advisory board) reviewed a manual of style for contract drafting by editing Twitter’s Innovator’s Patent Agreement per the manual’s advice. I enjoyed Villa’s post, but have not attempted to discern (and discernment may be beyond my capability) how closely DPL 1.0 follows the manual’s advice. By the way, Villa’s edit of the IPA per the manual did improve its automated readability metrics:

SHA1 License Characters Kincaid ARI Coleman-Liau Fog Lix SMOG Flesch Chars/(Flesch>=1)
8774cfcefbc3b008188efc141256b0a8dbe89296 IPA 4778 19.6 24.0 15.5 22.7 75.8 17.0 27.1 176
b7a39883743c7b1738aca355c217d1d14c511de6 IPA-MSCD 4665 17.4 21.2 15.6 20.4 70.2 16.0 32.8 142

Net

Go back to the top, read the DPL, get your and other entities in the queue to be DPL users at its launch! Or, explain to me why this is a bad idea.

Social mobilization for the Internet post-epochals grew up with

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Puneet Kishor has organized a book talk tomorrow (2013-11-15) evening in San Francisco by Edward Lee, author of The Fight for the Future: How People Defeated Hollywood and Saved the Internet–For Now (pdf).

I can’t attend, so I watched a recording of a recent talk by Lee and skimmed the book.

The book gives a narrative of the SOPA/PIPA and ACTA protests, nicely complementing Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate, which does what the title says by analyzing relevant posts and links among them.

Lee in the talk and book, and the authors of the mapping report, paint a picture of a networked, distributed, and dynamic set of activists and organizations, culminating in a day of website blackouts and millions of people contacting legislators, and street protests in the case of ACTA.

The mapping report puts the protests and online activity leading up to them in the context of debate over whether the net breeds conversations that are inane and silo’d, or substantive and boundary-crossing: data point for the latter. What does this portend for social mobilization and politics in the future? Unknown: (1) state or corporate interests could figure out how to leverage social mobilization as or more effectively than public interest actors (vague categories yes), (2) the medium itself (which now, a few generations have grown up with, if we allow for “growing up” to extend beyond high school) being perceived at risk may have made these protests uniquely well positioned to mobilize via the medium, or (3) this kind of social mobilization could tilt power in a significant and long-term way.

Lots of people seem to be invested in a version of (3). They may be right, but the immediate outcome makes me sad: the perceived cutting edge of activism amounts to repeated communications optimization, i.e., spam science. Must be the civil society version of “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” This seems eminently gameable toward (1), in addition to being ugly. We may be lucky if (2) is most true.

On the future of “internet freedoms” and social mobilization, Lee doesn’t really speculate. In the talk Q&A, lack of mass protest concerning mass surveillance is noted. The book’s closing words:

“We tried not to celebrate too much because it was just a battle. We won a battle, not the war. We’re still fighting other free trade agreements and intellectual property enforcement that affect individual rights.”

In a way, the fight for digital rights had only just begun.

Of course my standard complaint about this fight, which is decades old at least, is that it does not consist merely of a series of rearguard battles, but also altering the ecosystem.

“I would love it if all patents evaporated” (WebRTC)

Monday, November 11th, 2013

I’ve been following WebRTC (Real Time Communications) because (1) it is probably the most significant addition to the web in terms of enabling a new class of applications at least since the introduction of Ajax (1998, standardized by 2006), and perhaps since the introduction of Javascript (1995, standardized by 1997). The IETF working group charter puts it well (another part of the work is at W3C):

There are a number of proprietary implementations that provide direct interactive rich communication using audio, video, collaboration, games, etc. between two peers’ web-browsers. These are not interoperable, as they require non-standard extensions or plugins to work. There is a desire to standardize the basis for such communication so that interoperable communication can be established between any compatible browsers. The goal is to enable innovation on top of a set of basic components. One core component is to enable real-time media like audio and video, a second is to enable data transfer directly between clients.

(See pad.textb.org (source) for one simple application; simpleWebRTC seems to be a popular library for building WebRTC applications.)

And (2) because WebRTC is the scene of the latest fight to protect open web standards from rent seekers.

The IETF working group is choosing between H.264 Constrained Baseline Profile Level 1.2 and VP8 as the Mandatory To Implement (MTI) video codec (meaning all applications can count on that codec being available) for WebRTC. H.264 cannot be included in free and open source software, VP8 can, due to their respective patent situations. (For audio-only WebRTC applications, the free Opus codec seems to be a non-controversial requirement.)

Cisco has recently promised that in 2014 they will make available a binary implementation of H.264 for which they will pay license fees for all comers (there is an annual cap on fees, allowing them to do this). That’s nice of them, but the offer is far from ideal for any software (a binary must be downloaded from Cisco servers for each user), and a nonstarter for applications without some kind of plugin system, and for free and open source software distributions, which must be able to modify source code.

Last week I remotely attended a meeting on the MTI video codec choice. No consensus was reached; discussion continues on the mailing list. One interesting thing about the non-consensus was the split between physical attendees (50% for H.264 and 30% for VP8) and remote attendees (20% for H.264, 80% for VP8). A point mentioned several times was the interest of “big players” (mostly fine with paying H.264 fees, and are using it in various other products) and “little players” (fees are significant, eg startups, or impossible, eg free and open source projects); depending on one’s perspective, the difference shows how venue biases participation in one or both directions.

Jonathan Rosenberg, the main presenter for H.264, at about 22 minutes into a recording segment:

I would love it if all patents evaporated, if all the stuff was open source in ways that we could use, and we didn’t have to deal with any of this mess.

The argument for why H.264 is the best choice for dealing with “this mess” boils down to H.264 having a longer history and broader adoption than VP8 (in other applications; the two implementation of WebRTC so far, in recent versions of Chrome and Firefox, so far exclusively use VP8).

Harald Alvestrand, the main presenter for VP8, at about 48 minutes into another recording segment:

Development of codecs has been massively hampered and held back by the fact that it has been done in a fashion that has served to maximize the patent encumbrances on codecs. Sooner or later, we should see a way forward to abandon the dependence on encumbered codecs also for video software. My question, at this juncture, is if not now, when?

Unsurprisingly, I find this (along with the unworkability of H.264 for free and open source software) a much more compelling argument. The first step toward making patents evaporate (or at least irrelevant for digital video) is to select a codec which has been developed to maximize freedom, rather than developed to maximize encumbrances and rent collection.

What are individuals and entities pushing H.264 as the best codec for now, given the mess, doing for the longer term? Are they working on H.265, in order to bake in rents for the next generation? Or are they contributing to VP9, the next-next generation Daala, and the elimination of software patents?

Addendum: Version of this post sent to rtcweb@ietf.org (and any followups).