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Rejecting the Licensing Culture

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Have you ever replied to an email message by including the sender's email message? Did you ask for a license first?

I'm sorry, but you are guilty of copyright infringement, and may be liable for prosecution, as lovingly explained whenever we watch a prerecorded video.

Yes, it's true. Copyright is completely out of control in this country. It all started with "copyright reform" in 1976 and it's only gotten worse. Cautious publishers collect permission for EVERY image, photo, or quotation that might come from somewhere else. Never mind the notion of "fair use;" many publishers pretend it doesn't exist.

As a teacher, I rely heavily on "fair use" exemptions. Some classroom materials have a clear and simple licensing regime, but a lot of things are just "out there" without a clear process for licensing. It seriously interferes with education and even free speech when everything needs a license.

Before 1976, people had to explicitly declare a copyright on something to protect it. In 1976, Congress threw a blanket copyright over everything, and I mean everything. As soon as you take a picture or write a sentence, the law recognizes an implicit copyright that belongs to you. If you grandma wrote it, and now she's dead, you'll probably need a lawyer to sort out "ownership."

Now, publishers like Jones and Bartlett Learning, who published my textbook, collect permission for EVERYTHING they publish. This caused a six-month delay in publishing the textbook, since they decided to implement this regime just as I was finishing. 

I can't speak for why publishers do this, but I see an obvious side-effect: if EVERYTHING is licensed as a matter of course by "legitimate" publishers, this casts suspicion on "other" publishers. It also tries to establish a "new normal" in which everything must carry a permission sticker.

Is it too late to turn back?

I admit I've fallen into the "license everything" culture myself. I've tended to mark everything with either some flavor of Creative Commons or an "all rights reserved" just so I "have control" of what I say. 

But I'm not sure the cure is better than the potential down sides. I've occasionally seen tropes of mine make their way anonymously into the general public. However, I doubt it helps the culture, or even me personally, to have my name associated with them. It's like the guy in the movie: "I invented the little insulating ring that goes around coffee cups." Yes, he patented it and got rich, which would be nice, but it's not something to hang a career on.

I like the emerging idea of "post open source software" or POSS - instead of niggling around with licenses (and the subsequent arguments with pro- and anti-Stallman camps), they just post it to github. This is nicely discussed in a post by attorney Luis Villa.


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