Copyright when first envisaged granted a limited-term monopoly on a work which then later fell in to the public domain, or PD. This would give the author some amount of time to make money and pay the mortgage, balanced with allowing people later on to take the work and build upon it. So you write a book, you can sell it but nobody else can, and then some number of years later everybody can do as they please with your book.
This is no longer the case. Copyright is effectively infinite. This means that while we can take old works and build upon them (Pinocchio) we cannot do the same with even pretty old works (Mickey Mouse). Edge cases exist of course, for example you can in many places use old works for parody.
Some people wish to make their work available under less restrictive terms than owning it forever. For them, there are a set of licenses which they can use to release their works.
- They can claim attribution. Broadly, this means you can use my work but you have to say where it came from.
- They can claim share-alike. Broadly, this means you can use my work, but any derivative works need to also be sharable. So you can’t take my book and then rewrite portions and claim it for yourself.
- They can claim commercial rights. Essentially this means you can use my work for anything but profit.
- You can use some combination of the above.
Thus instead of claiming copyright forever for your new book, photograph or software, you could instead for example say “use it however you wish but all changes must be shared-alike and you can’t use it commercially”. This allows individuals and companies to put works out there and allow them to spread more easily than if they retained all the copyrights.
Two basic methods of making money have emerged while using these open licenses:
- The intellectual piece is free, but any physical product costs money. For example, 3D Robotics software for drones is freely downloadable and you can change it. But if you want a physical, flying drone then that costs money. Very similar is this: the basic software is free but some critical piece required for some use case requires payment.
- The work is available publicly under a difficult open license, but privately under some commercial agreement. This is known as dual licensing. The downside is that to encourage commercial usage, the open license tends to be as painful as possible. This way, a student at home is unaffected but a company might find a license difficult. Perhaps it requires a legal review, or places burdens on the company like open sourcing everything they do. To avoid this pain, they pay for the commercial license.
The trouble here is we still don’t have things leaking in to the public domain over time. It’s seen that once a work is licensed under some license that it’s stuck there until the end of man.
What if we changed that?
I propose we engage in some kind of license ascent over time. Perhaps descent would be better. Under this scheme, some work starts out under a restrictive and painful license and over time makes it’s way in to the public domain. For example:
- I write a book. For the first year, it is available under a attribution, share-alike non-commercial license.
- After the first year, it is available attribution, non-commercial.
- After the second year, it is available under attribution.
- After the third year, it is available public-domain.
We are reintroducing the concept of the work leaking in to the public domain gradually. So when I first create some piece of work I own it outright and then over time it becomes less and less burdened.
For static works like a book, the timelines may be longer. Say, two or five years per step. For works which changed all the time, like datasets about the world, perhaps each step lasts a year. Why would we want to do this? Two reasons: Because otherwise it’s really hard to make money from open source, and otherwise open projects don’t benefit the public domain.
There are classes of works which require “giving back” like OpenStreetMap in order to attract people to contribute. That is, why would you contribute to OSM if you couldn’t access the data? OSM has now existed for 11 years and the state of mapping in the public domain is still essentially the same as it was 11 years ago. But what if OSM data dropped in to a more liberal license, or the public domain, over time? Perhaps we could have a PD version of OSM but it was 5 years old. It wouldn’t compete with OSM itself, but it would enrich what people could build on without restrictions.
Put another way, do we want OSM to be perfect in another 10 years and the public domain still be essentially unusable? Wouldn’t it be nice to improve both OSM and (for free!) the public domain maps available?
Now imagine you have some new project which requires crowdsourcing to succeed. Dual licensing has the downside that picking the open license has many difficulties. You want to pick something that encourages people to contribute yet allows you to retain space to sell things, and this isn’t easy. If instead you practiced license ascent then everybody gets the data at some point in the future. Perhaps if you are a PD person you wait 3 years, and a share-alike person you have to wait two years. But either way, it’s better than never getting the data under a license that you would consider useful.
And, it does this whilst allowing the project or company to make money off the freshest data. It also creates an incentive to make the data fresher, all the time, because otherwise the old data will be good enough for people.
Now you could argue that any project should be open from the start, but open projects tend to have significant downsides. Open projects are terrible at user interaction and experience. They’re terrible at design. They tend to be incoherent. But they are great at innovation and collecting data. At the other end, private companies which collect data tend to be great at design and so on, but terrible at innovation and collecting data because they don’t have volunteers. I posit that license ascent is a way to achieve both and that it’s better than just picking a license or selling widgets on the side.