By Billy Meinke

The following is an edited excerpt of a transcript from the talk Billy Meinke gave at the Open Source Open Society conference in Wellington in April 2015. Meinke is an educational technologist with College of Education at the University of Hawaii, and was formerly on the education team at Creative Commons international HQ.

Digital content is non-rivalrous, meaning that I can take something I have and give it to you, without losing anything myself. You see it all over the place on the internet, memes being shared and remixed and shared again. It’s collective creativity on a massive scale, but the law hasn’t adapted to suit the affordances of the digital world.

Ever-increasingly restrictive copyright laws have been introduced over the last few decades, extending the default length of time it takes for works to enter the public domain automatically. When you create a work in the United States, we’ll be waiting 70 years or more after your death until we can freely reuse your work. [50 years in NZ.] Does that sound reasonable in a digital age? In an age where the marginal cost of copying and transmitting digital artifacts is mere fractions of a penny? I think not.

Copyright (and patents) were originally designed to last a period of time long enough to incentivise the creation of new works. But several times during the 20th century, the default copyright term was exended after big media firms won cases to further lock away the likes of Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and the Happy Birthday song.

You made it; now you should be able to exploit it. What if we wanted to share it out? What if we wanted to build things with people who have shared interests, but live across the globe? What if we wanted to set our works free, or contribute to something larger than ourselves? Open licenses for content and code are at the ready and have allowed us to put our collective creativity into the commons how and when we wish to. The Creative Commons, the GNU Public Licence, and others have been critical in allowing this to happen.

The good news is, we are making headway together.

While there are real threats to this (such as the Trans Pacific Partnership), we’re actually sitting on the most robust commons we’ve ever had. Countless free and open-source software projects provides technical infrastructure that we rely on every day. Content and code and data are being put into the commons at a rate that should make every single one of us smile.

In a commons-based future, educational opportunity is ubiquitous.

Anyone who wants to learn can learn. The only barrier to education is the willingness to try. And when you try, you have a pool of shared knowledge at your fingertips that we could have only dreamt of in the past. You don’t think in terms of a textbook, because the web is your learning platform, and you own your educational future. And when you want to know more, you’re connected to other citizens who share your thirst for knowledge. You begin to string together digital artifacts along your journey, and you can see how others navigated the seas of open educational resources before you. You create your own pathways that others can follow after you move on. You participate in the commons.

Arts and culture. You have the world’s cultural heritage available to you. You search the archives of thousands of museums in hundreds of countries, and help curate collections of millions of images and sounds and videos that tell the story of our world before now. You can see streams of artifacts flowing into the commons as new discoveries are unearthed. You can walk the halls of the Louvre or the Smithsonian or any number of places anywhere on earth that you’ve always wished to see. When you find something truly compelling, you take a 3D scan of it and print it at the local library. You place your hands on history, work with it, play with it, understand it. You make new things from the things of ages past. You breathe life into history. You participate in the commons.

Research and science. You stand on the shoulders of giants and tap into a distributed body of research that spans all domains of science. You have access to the latest studies and reports, and to the underlying data and code that produced them. You can ask questions of the data that no one thought to do, or was able to before it was free. You make visualisations from it that help others find meaning in it. You thumb through sciencific studies being done all over the world in real-time. You can be a part of a community of enthusiasts who push the limits of what it means to be a citizen scientist. Science, for you, is a living breathing thing, and you’re participating in the commons.

Government operates openly, bringing a heightened level of transparency and efficiency. Civic data is a few keystrokes away, and the government invites you to make the data more useful and consumable. Legislation is codified and publicly versioned, and you’re notified when a change is proposed or made to the laws you care the most about. Citizens are more informed and involved in the ways their tax dollars are spent, and they support government leaders who work to ensure this transparency continues in perpetuity. You have knowledge about your community and your world in the palm of your hand. You’re participating in the commons.

This commons-based future isn’t a fantasy, as you may have begun to think. Every one of the advantages and capabilities and freedoms I have mentioned are based on technology we have today. And each of them is happening somewhere in the world, but none of them are happening everywhere in the world. By participating in the commons, we can work towards a future where more people have a life that involves the commons. The commons can grow.

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