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Do science and copyright mix? (or: if you love your writing, set it free)

American academic and political activist Lawrence Lessig  argues that digital technologies allow all of us to change from passive consumers of culture to the its creators. Producing books, newspapers and movies in the 20th century required a lot investment into manufacturing and distribution, which made most of the population unable to take part in a wider culture, beyond a local newspaper or drama group.

The Internet and cheap electronic devices have changed this. You can shoot a small video about how to make a tie knot – thanks to whoever did it, I  helped my son with his first proper school tie. You can write an article and send it to BiteSizeBio via e-mail without buying the paper, typing it on a typewriter and going to the post office to send it off.

You can take  hundreds of pictures  using your mobile and post them on Flickr or Instagram, without spending money to buy film and chemicals and sitting hours in a dark room to get prints, which  only the members of your family will see.

However, after publishing content, the things get tricky. The current state of copyright is  inherited from the past. To recoup the investment they put into old-school content production, the publishing houses and record companies had stonewalled their product with “All rights reserved” sign.  And we, citizen-creators, are following their example, not realising what it means for us: not a chance for fabulous wealth, but almost certain oblivion of our creations.

The DNA Sculpture – all rights reserved

Let me give you an example. While writing a review of James Watson’s book “The Double Helix”, I remembered the DNA sculpture, which stands in the Cold Spring Harbor, the photo of which would be a good header for the article. I found an image on Flickr, which would have served well, but it had “All rights reserved”.  Before using the image I would have would have to negotiate with the author with no guarantee of success.

Instead I have used a different picture from Flickr, published under a free license, which permits changes and commercial use on condition that the author acknowledged – CC BY-SA 3.0.  Both of the  of the photographers did not get paid, but the author of the first, copyrighted picture got  under a ten viewings of his picture, the second – at least several hundreds and free publicity, which may lead to a payment.

The question of license is not just about your holiday snaps. If you publish your scientific article in the most traditional paper journals, you surrender your copyright to the publishing house, allowing it to charge $30 per copy of your work, while the open access journals leave the copyright with you. Again, you are not getting paid for your work in both cases, but in case of open access other people can read it for free (although you as the author bear the costs of the publication).

The Creative Commons Licenses (CCL)

CCL are not the only type of free licences, but I doubt that even lawyers can recite all of them by heart. Scrolling down this Creative Commons Licenses page until “The Licences” part will give you a good understanding of your options.

Next time you publish your content please use a free licence – and the world will become a better, more open, more creative place because of you.

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