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Licensing with Open Source and Creative Commons: Not as Simple as it Seems

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The culture of sharing is deeply embedded in the 3D printing community. This doesn’t mean that it is universal, but rather that it is more of a choice not to participate. Sharing openly is seen as something to be declared proudly and its absence somewhat suspiciously regarded. A recent think piece authored by Michael Weinberg (tagline for his blog: ‘I put things here so they are on the internet’) brings to light some interesting difficulties being brought about by the success of the open source and Creative Commons copyright movements.

By Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple.jpg: Eugène Delacroixderivative work: Ju gatsu mikka (^o^) appelez moi Ju (^o^) - Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7982600

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

This desire to share is creating problems, but as copyright expert Weinberg notes, they are good problems to have. These are the results of over-abundance and widespread enthusiasm. In other words, despite being bad news, this is good news. Unlike a rip in the space-time continuum which is caused by the overactive imaginations of science fiction writers, a rip in the safety net that is open source and Creative Commons (OSS/CC) is caused by the massive volume of people opting in to the system. As Weinberg explains:

Staff_photo_-_Mike

Michael Weinberg

“The upshot of the situation is the OSS/CC trained a lot of people to share, but to share conditionally. This conditionality was (and is) important to creating a commons: it gives people confidence in sharing and makes them feel like they are entering a community with reciprocity. Conditional sharing has created an unbelievable rich commons of code, art, and expression.”

What is happening is that the concept of the legally binding natures of copyright and licensing are being stretched to their limits as the public idea of what they can protect grows like Seymour’s plant in Little Shop of Horrors. The root of the problem lies in a misunderstanding of what exactly can be protected legally and what can only be monitored by social graces. Some things are naturally subject to copyright and the licensing provided through OSS/CC is actually to ensure that permissions are given so that they can be shared easily. Other things are naturally outside of the limits of copyright law, therefore licensing them is unnecessary.

Screen Shot 2016-09-12 at 9.15.02 AMWhat this creates is a situation in which people may believe that they are entitled to license their creations when, in fact, they are not and since the lines are not clearly understood, could lead to a crisis of confidence in the OSS/CC system. Weinberg clarifies:

“Some parts of any given open source hardware project may be protectable by copyright, and many 3D printed objects are protected by copyright. However, the functional parts of an open source hardware project and more utilitarian 3D printed objects are beyond the scope of copyright…As a result, on some level and in a non-trivial number of cases, using copyright-based licenses for works in these communities is inappropriate.”

OSS/CC has overflowed its original purposes. image: flickr user zoetnet CC-BY 2.0.

OSS/CC has overflowed its original purposes. [Image: flickr user zoetnet CC-BY 2.0.]

What is good about this situation is people’s desire to ensure that what they have created can be openly shared. However, if they believe that they are allowing their creation to be shared and then the conditions of that sharing are violated, such as attribution, and they discover they have no legal recourse they may lose confidence in the system as a whole. And without that confidence, there is no community.

So what is to be done?

I had sincerely hoped something brilliant would occur to me so that I could publish it here and then be hailed as a hero (my superpower being insight). Unfortunately, this is a very complex issue that does not lend itself easily to facile solutions. The key at this point is that to recognize the existence of the issue at all is a step in the right direction. And because it is the collaborative nature of these communities that make them so strong, the solution (or at least the next evolution of the problem) will more than likely come as a result of a collective mind.

So go ahead and 3D print your thinking cap; we’re going to need you. Discuss further in the Open Source & Creative Commons forum over at 3DPB.com.

 

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