Thursday, October 28, 2004

Information For Free


One of my personal goals is to make information more Freely available. There is a common distinction in software development circles - Free as in liberty or free as in beer. I think that both are important, but the first more so. Specifically, I think the current state of academic publication is a joke, and it suffers from neither kind of freedom.

Copyright is a word covering a set of laws governing how you may make use of art - be it writing or painting, digital photography or whatever. It's what stops me ripping off famous authors and selling their works as my own, setting up a line of toys based on the latest Disney cartoons, and so on. Sounds like a good thing, right?

The Internet is home to a nearly limitless supply of Copyright rants, especially given the US laws which allow copyright laws to maintain the ownership of a work long after the author's death - up to 75 years in most cases I believe. Australia is set at 50 years, but thanks to the Free Trade Agreement we may shortly find ourselves having imported some things bitter along with the sweet. At its inception, I believe the Copyright period was a mere 20 years.

This article is not setting out to provide a dissertation of existing Copyright laws, but rather to highlight why it necessarily fails institutions whose goal is the spread of knowledge. Look at the Bible - it's long out of copyright, and it's the best selling book of all time. Co-incidence? (well, I may be drawing a long bow here). My point is more that the goal of academia (other than to provide people with job tickets) is to foster human knowledge. It has become rather a muddy pool of late, including commercial interests, students wishing to sell their ideas, and otherwise re-gearing the principle of study to a commercial market.

Is this a good thing? It is consistently assumed by people that there is a degree of inevitability towards the marginalisation of science, and the increasing burden of living in a commercial reality. But why? Surely society becomes more prosperous over time, not less so. Why should anyone ever face heavier economic burdens that those in the past?

In fact, I believe that guarding knowledge is directly causing the marginalisation of philosophical study. Instead of promoting the free access to all of an essentially altruistic knowledgebase, academic essays wallow in obscurity. This is bad. I leave you with the (very much still in copyright) quote from Douglas Adams' book "Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy"

ARTHUR: Yes, well, as soon as I heard, I went straight round to see them. You hadn’t gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody.

PROSSER: The plans were on display—

ARTHUR: On display? I had to go down to the cellar to find them!

PROSSER: That’s the display department!

ARTHUR: With a flashlight.

PROSSER: The lights had probably gone out.

ARTHUR: So had the stairs.

PROSSER: But you found the notice, didn’t you?

ARTHUR: Yes, I did. It was "on display" in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying, "Beware of the Leopard."

PROSSER: Mr. Dent, have you any idea how much damage that bulldozer would suffer if I just let it roll straight over you?

I put it to you that PROSSER might equally well stand in for "professor". Slowly, slowly, the list of available resources on MP is expanding, but it's a process rather akin to trying to find a small piece of straw in a huge stack of needles.

For space reasons, I will continue this discussion tomorrow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bible copyright: The King James version IS still under restricted copyright, since it's release in 1611, as it was issued by the State not an individual, and is also affected by the status of the Anglican Church as a State Religion. Its reprinting is done by, or under agremeement from, the Universities of Cambridge or Oxford. It is not copyright outside the UK, and also annotated versions - studies - can be made without approval.

Another usage of "free" would be "This information is freely available" - which does not mean it is free-of-charge or free-of-spirit

Keep up the blogging


10/28/2004 05:06:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

The issue of bible copyright reminds me of an attempt to pass the linux kernel code as law. The laws of a country are exempt from normal copyright law, and as such it was thought that passing the code as law might protect it from possible law suits.

10/29/2004 12:55:00 PM  
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