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

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 its creators. Producing books, newspapers, and movies in the 20th century required a lot of investment into manufacturing and distribution, which made most of the population unable to take part in 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, or 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 for hours in a dark room to get prints, which only the members of your family will see.

However, after publishing content, 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 an “All rights reserved” sign.  And we, citizen-creators, are following their example, not realizing 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 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.  Neither of the photographers got paid, but the author of the first, copyrighted picture got under 10 viewings of his picture, the second – at least several hundred and free publicity, which may lead to a payment.

The question of licenses is not just about your holiday snaps. If you publish your scientific article in 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 either case, but in the 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 (CCLs)

CCLs are not the only type of free licenses, 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 license – and the world will become a better, more open, more creative place because of you.

Image Credit: Set It Free

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