Happy GNU Year & Public Domains Day

This Public Domain Day I recommend watching a 2005 lecture or corresponding 2006 journal article Enriching Discourse on Public Domains (summary) by Pamela Samuleson.

The video was only published by Duke Law (which also hosts the main U.S.-centric public domain day page) to their YouTube channel a month ago. Based on the first version (2013-01-02) of my attempted summary, I read the paper the day after my public domain day post 2 years ago, Public Domains Day, which riffed on dictionary definitions.

Samuelson outlines 13 meanings found in law review articles (see the summary for a quick listing) and points out some benefits and one cost of accepting multiple definitions:

+ avoid disputes about “the” correct or one true definition
+ broadened awareness of public domains and public domain values
+ facilitation of context-sensitive discussion
+ enable nuanced answers to questions about various public domains (eg shrinking or not?)
+ possibility of gaining insight into public domain values through consideration of different public domains (deemed most important by author)
– possible confusion concerning what a communicator means by “public domain”

In the lecture Samuelson says it took a long time for her to accept multiple definitions, in part after realizing that other fields such as property law successfully use multiple context-dependent definitions. I’d like to add a plus to the list:

+ language is fun, play with it!

Hectoring people for not using the deemed-by-you to be the one true definitions of the correct words is the opposite of fun. I do tend to use nonstandard words and phrases such as “copyrestriction”, “inequality promotion”, “intellectual freedom infringement”, “intellectual parasite”, and “intellectual protectionism” in order to make a point and have fun, but have descended to hectoring at times (and probably have been perceived as having done so more). I will from now make more of an effort to use terms other people use, or when not, give a fun and non-hectoring rationale. In the meantime, I will say that though I agree with many individual points made concerning word avoidance, I find such neither fun nor welcoming nor helpful in convincing anyone that freedom and equality need to be the dominant objectives of information policy.

At the beginning of the lecture Samuelson is given an introduction lauding her work, initially lonely but presented in 2005 as central, toward making intellectual property scholarship discourse consider the value of the various public domains and costs of expanding (scope, duration, protections) intellectual property rights. I have long been a fan of Samuelson’s work, but the introduction served to remind me of how unsatisfied I am with what still constitutes the liberalizing reform (which itself is possibly central, but I am too ignorant of the breadth of IP scholarship, which surely includes much so-called “maximalism”, to say) line:

  • acknowledgement that we can say little about the net benefits of IP
  • but it is surely “unbalanced” toward protection now
  • so it needs balancing and tuning
  • but of course IP is crucial so genuflect to drugs and movies
  • (largely through omission) commons are a band-aid and not central to reform
  • (largely through omission) freedom and equality not the central objectives

Of course not, as then we would have commons scholarship, not IP scholarship. I contend that pro-commons policy and products are the most feasible, sustainable, and overall best reforms and that freedom and equality should be the dominant objectives — I want the innovations and entertainment produced by a freedom respecting regime — surely meaning substantially less monopoly, hopefully a bit less embarrassing spectacle.

Image from last year, with ‘s’ added to ‘domain’; I’ve written enough recently about ‘GNU’ (signifying software freedom, not the GNU project strictly speaking).

Happy GNU Year & Public Domain Days

3 Responses

  1. Chris Sakkas says:

    I would add another cost of accepting multiple definitions:

    -It may weaken the significance or authority of a particular definition.

    This is what we see every day in the movement, where openwashing results in precisely defined and carefully deliniated free and open source software and culture being lumped in with freeware, shareware, gratis “open” access, proprietary Creative Commons licences, and so on.

    With the term “public domain”, I can see its use to describe public knowledge (“Wikileaks places secret service information in the public domain”) as potentially weakening its copyright-related sense.

  2. Hi Chris, I’m fine with ‘weakening’ the meaning of certain words (I put in quotes because the words in question do have multiple meanings). I don’t see the joyless attempt to make all but one meaning archaic a substitute for actually convincing people that the concept we prefer is worthwhile — to the contrary, I see endless debating of which words are preferable and exactly how they should be used to avoid co-option as a kind of a movement self-lobotomy. Folks who require a specific definition can refer to one made for the purpose. That’s why I’ve been involved in opendefinition.org though I don’t find it useful to hector people who use the word open in some other way (I meant to write a blog post about this back in January, but I may never get to it so I’m leaving this comment). The problem is not that they may be openwashing, but that they (and/or their customers) haven’t been convinced that open (as we mean it) is a concept worth buying.

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