Government, copyright and the public good

At GovCamp Canberra 2012, the Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan stated:

“When government is the owner of intellectual property, a proprietary approach runs counter to the purpose of government and the public good”.

We couldn’t agree more. Governments exist to serve citizens, not to compete with them. Any form of information produced by governments should belong to the citizenry.

Further, in this age of easy sharing of information there is no reason to restrict this access to the citizenry of one country. There is also no practical way to stop such access. I can and do access the public domain works of the US Federal government, though I’m not a US citizen. A Tanzanian can access works of the Australian government, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

These are sadly rare examples. Governments do tend to slap “Copyright… all rights reserved” notices on their works – including local and state governments in the US, despite the good example of the federal government. In Australia, open licenses are encouraged but not compulsory, and some departments are still struggling with the idea of letting people use the content however they wish. There are fears and misconceptions, but there are also advocates of openness, and change is happening in their corner of the world.

Based on Professor McMillan’s presentation, and on a conversation with someone from his office, he and his office are serious about promoting knowledge sharing by the Australian government. I hope we’ll see this approach followed in more and more governments around the world.

Are there local government councilors and state/provincial representatives reading this? Or representatives from countries that haven’t implemented open licensing yet? Think about your publications on recycling, or energy efficiency, or cycling, or sustainable housing, or foreign aid… Councils such as the City of Sydney and the City of Portland have a large amount of valuable content, and citizens as well as governments would benefit from this information being shared.

What would it take to put a Creative Commons Attribution license on all your publications?

The quote was captured and shared on Twitter by Pia Waugh – wording is accurate to the best of our knowledge.

More than data

The World Bank is opening its data, putting a large part of that data under an open license. It has even announced an Apps for development challenge, with prizes, to use this data to “create innovative software applications that move us a step closer toward solving some of the world’s most pressing problems”. These are great steps toward openness, and have come more quickly than I expected. Kudos to them, and to groups such as aidinfo.org and the Open Knowledge Foundation that have been pushing for this.

But this is only part of the story. As Tobias Denskus writes:

but if we really want to democratise the development discourse we should also publish, say, the minutes of Bank board meetings and other relevant internal documents to understand how ideas and statistics are translated into ‘reality’ through powerful interlocutors like the Bank and its staff.  – Why publishing aid data does not equal ‘democratizing development’

It’s crucial that we share not only data, but aid and development knowledge. Publications like The World Bank Participation Sourcebook should be open licensed. The same goes for the many arms of the UN.

Is anyone at these institutions listening seriously to this request?