Sharing and the Knowledge Economy

One of the problems for artists, writers, coders, and producers of, well, all the stuff we lump under the “knowledge economy” is what to do when you want to share. By default, as I understand it, materials are copyrighted to their maker. That means you have to be active in changing the status of your materials to something others can use without seeking your permission.

Now, why would you want to do that? There are a variety of reasons, some of them principled and some of them practical.

First, the principled reasons are:

1. *Sharing is good.* In some ways this is both a principled and a practical stance. For knowledge to be, well, knowledge, it has to be shared. Otherwise it’s just ideas in your head. Maybe they came from those voices you sometimes hear inside your head, but chances are the ideas actually came from your encounters in the world: things you heard, things you saw, thing you read. That means your ideas are based on other people’s ideas, and, surprise, they shared them with you and now you get to share, too.
2. *Sharing is fun.* Remember when you were a kid and you had something another kid didn’t have and they just really, really, really wanted to play with it. At first it kinda hurt to have to share, but the look of pure bliss that came across that other kid’s face, and how thankful they were for the chance to play with whatever it is you shared made it even better. You were a hero. And, by the way, the thing you shared: do you even have it anymore? No? I thought not. See? You don’t have the thing anymore, but you still have the memory of having shared.

Another reason for me to share, that may or not be of the nature of a “principle” is that I do so because I am a professor at a public university. I feel that I am paid for. (Not a lot, but still.) More importantly, I am paid for by a lot of people who really don’t have much themselves. It’s my duty to share.

And now the practical reasons:

1. *Sharing works.* It builds your reputation. People want your stuff because it’s good, it’s smart, it helps them in some way. And not only are you smart, but you are also nice. Whoa, you are in good stead twice over.
2. *Sharing makes less work for you.* I admit it: I’m lazy. The last thing I want to do is keep answering e-mails from various teachers, students, and colleagues about use of some photograph, document, or form I have created. I put them on [Flickr][] and [Scribd][] with Creative Commons licenses for a reason: I don’t want to have to e-mail things or make copies and mail, and I don’t want to have to respond to e-mails or telephone calls or write stupid legal-sounding notes giving someone permission to use something.

Now, before I get to the practical side of how you, too, can share your stuff. I should note that there is a down side to sharing. As I noted above, as a university professor I am paid for. One of the things for which I am paid is knowledge creation. But universities are very particular about how they measure creativity: they rely upon a somewhat creaky, but very reliable system that gauges my productivity in terms of very particular kinds of items — books, articles, etc. — and very particular kinds of estimation of my value — is another university offering me a job? for example — or how widely, or often, am I cited?

I share most of my materials under the Creative Commons “Attribution” license, but that really depends upon the users of my materials crediting me in some fashion. In making less work for myself, I have made some work for them, and so far I have found that that bit of work is the most likely to fall through the cracks. For now, I don’t mind. The last people I am going to complain about are my fellow academics and other teachers: I know how little time they have and the increasingly onerous paperwork regimes under which we all work. Added to that, is that the university itself, like its peers, does not really have the facilities to “credit” my productivity in this regard. But if such things do matter to you, than my version of “share it if you got it” might not be the best idea for you.

I will leave the decision about **what to share** to you. It’s a hard decision to make. And, I confess, the difficulty is not really made any easier by the number of options are available. **How you share** is very important. Why? Here’s something that may catch you off guard: you can’t simply declare something to be in the public domain. *What?!* That’s right. The truth is that *public domain* is not a globally-recognized category. There are some countries where public domain materials are either not recognized as such, and thus make it difficult for people to use your materials. There are also some instances in our own country where use of public domain materials makes their use difficult. (Search for yourself, if you like.)

So, then, to share you have to find a form of copyright that is as “open” (or copyleft) as you wish. Most artists and writers I know are using one of the [Creative Commons][cc] licenses. Most coders I know tend to use one of the many code licenses available: GPL, “BSD-style,” Apache, etc. (For more on these licenses, see [Shlomi Fish’s write-up][fish] — link is to a Scribd PDF that I uploaded.)

How restrictive a license you choose is up to you, but here’s my advice: follow Fish’s suggestion and choose as permissive and open a license as you possibly can. In my own case, everything on this website is licensed as [Attribution-Noncommercial][bync]. I don’t find it necessary to mandate that others share like me, but I do want renumeration should someone else make some money using my work. (I have a child to raise, a home to pay for, and a truck I would like to pay off.)

My photography is under a more restrictive “no derivatives” license because a number of my photographs are from my documentary work, and I feel I owe the people with whom I work the courtesy of making sure their images are used in a way they would find appropriate and if there is money to be made, that I can make arrangements to see them paid. (Most photographers make money off their images of other people: I don’t.)

[Flickr]: http://flickr.com/johnlaudun
[Scribd]: http://scribd.com/johnlaudun
[cc]: http://creativecommons.org/
[fish]: http://www.scribd.com/doc/34997645
[bync]: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

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