"Copyleft" article in New Scientist

From: Stevan Harnad <harnad_at_cogprints.soton.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 31 Jan 2002 15:47:42 +0000


It looks to me as if "copyleft" is just a cute label for toll-free access
in the special case of text (software, music, etc. are all different
from text). The only thing I'm not sure about is whether "copyleft"
ensures all the usage rights researchers might want with refereed
research papers.

To put this in context: The "copyleft" notion is derived from
open-source, which is a software concept: Programmers felt (rightly)
that concealing and copyrighting software would stifle its
development and use. That's why they conceived of open-source.

But, as Eric Raymond indicates in the New Scientist article, it is not
clear what the counterpart of "software development" would be in the
case of text.

I think the answer is: nothing. In the special case of the texts we are
concerned with -- refereed research -- the only objective of publishing
them at all is to get them read, used, and cited. It is the knowledge
they encode that is being passed on, for adoption, modification,

Conventional software code is written to be used (not to be read, or
modified). And conventional software wants the usage paid for, and the
developmental path concealed. With text, there is no developmental
path, hence no concealment.

Now, with non-give-away text, there is the issue of charging for the
usage (and copying). But with give-away text there is no such issue. And
that is what toll-free-access is about.

I'm all for making common cause with open-source (which I admire and
support) wherever it is relevant. But there is one risk with conflating
the open-source and toll-free-access movements: There is no crisp
give-away/non-give-away divide in software. It's a question of taste or
ethics, not genre. Whereas with text, and the very special case of
refereed research, the distinction is intrinsic to the genre: Refereed
research is ESSENTIALLY give-away, and THAT is its salient feature, not
the much weaker and somewhat vague analogy to open-source software.

To put it more directly, using software development language to make the
point: The "developers" of the code that constitutes a refereed research
paper do not, never did, and never could or would, write the "code" in
order to sell it, and get fees or royalties from its use. Their rewards
come EXCLUSIVELY from the user community's use itself, which any form
of fee or toll would simply diminish or block.

THAT is the heart of the rationale and motivation for toll-free access
to refereed research, rather than the rather weaker homologies with
some aspects of open-source (with which toll-free-access nevertheless
resonates sympathetically).

I stand ready to be corrected by others who know more.

Stevan Harnad

> "Good ideas are worth money, so why are people giving them away for
> free? Join our experiment to find out.
> This week, New Scientist is doing something no other mainstream
> magazine has - publishing an article under what's known as a
> "copyleft".
> We're helping test one of the boldest ideas of our time. The outcome
> is up to you. To read the article, go to
> http://www.newscientist.com/hottopics/copyleft on NewScientist.com.
> There, you can provide feedback, copy the article, redistribute it,
> modify or reissue it, without worrying that you've violated our
> copyright.
> The article itself is about an idealistic movement called "open
> sourcing", which is all about free circulation of knowledge - an
> emerging alternative to growing corporate power and restrictive
> property rights. Open source is covered by a special licence called
> the copyleft, which grants as much freedom as possible, as long as
> you too release your version under the same copyleft terms and
> conditions.
> In software, open source is an undoubted success. Now some of its
> supporters are trying out its methods elsewhere. Already there's
> open source music, open source encyclopaedias, open source law, even
> open source soft drinks.
> We welcome your feedback on the concept, and input into the article
> itself. No-one's really sure what the benefits of this experiment
> will be, but if it works it could mean profound changes in
> publishing, technology, music, even consumer products.
> Kind regards
> Alun Anderson
> Editor-in-Chief
> New Scientist"
Received on Thu Jan 31 2002 - 15:48:50 GMT

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