Public Domain Information on Science, Engineering and the Environment

Public domain (or PD for us open content geeks) is the absence of any copyright restrictions and licensing requirements – public domain content gives you absolute freedom in how you use it. This is important in, say, a wiki, where public domain content can be used as the basis of an article – as was done for many articles in Wikipedia, using old, out-of-copyright encyclopedia articles.

The Public Domain Review has published a Guide to Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online, a great guide to finding public domain cultural works, in particular. But they’ve missed my favorites – the scattered works of the US federal government.

Appropedia is about science and technology – not necessarily the newest technology, but the most appropriate technologies and methods in construction, energy, water, sanitation, agriculture and other areas related to sustainable living. Guides and manuals, best practice, reports, impact studies, analysis – this kind of content is often found in governmental and intergovernmental publications, and while most governments’ works are copyrighted, in a few cases it is open content.

In particular, work created by officers of the U.S. federal government is generally public domain, by law. However, it’s not enough to searching in the*.gov domain, as that includes vast amounts of state and local government material which is not public domain, or even open-licensed. These pages also don’t use anything like the Creative Commons “mark” which helps search engines identify pages by license.

For that reason I’ve put together a custom search engine for the public domain – mainly searching the .gov domain while excluding a long list of non-PD .gov sites (more than 400 so far, most of them identified manually). It needs more work, possibly by an IP intern, identifying and excluding non-PD sites, and the onus is on the user to check the status of the material, but if you’re after public domain material of a serious nature, try it out.

Appropedia’s Public Domain Search:

Intellectual property (public domain) internship

Appropedia is seeking an intern to work on Intellectual Property. The focus will be on public domain content, and mainly US federal government online resources.

This would be particularly suitable for a law student with an interest in US and/or international IP law. Ability to use a spreadsheet might come in handy, and being more tech-savvy than that would be a bonus.

The main task is to help identify which web resources are and aren’t public domain. This information is used as the basis for the Public Domain Search – see the Beta version here (still a significant number of false positives):

This is an unpaid internship (the Appropedia Foundation being a non-profit organization) and you would be working remotely – unless you happen to be near a trusted member of the Appropedia community who can assist in mentoring you. (I’m near Jakarta, and others are in various parts of the US, Canada and the UK.) I’ve done the work on this so far, but we also have an attorney (Joel Scott) on our board of directors, with an interest in IP issues; and we’ve discussed this project with the Wikisource community, who may be able to lend a hand. You won’t be on your own.

If you are interested, please leave a comment either below or on my Appropedia talk page, and I’ll get in touch. (Or email me at my username, above, at appropedia dot org.) For more information about the search engine, see Public Domain Search on our wiki. The position will be open until it is filled, but we’d ideally like to find someone to start in this half of 2011.

Obama, transition and public domain

Change.gov, Obama’s transition team, adopts Creative Commons “By Attribution” License. Of course it’s good news when people free their content in this way. But it’s also worth pointing out that open content is not a brand new thing in US government.  US federal government information is public domain by default, so anything produced by someone in their work as a federal government official, on Change.gov or elsewhere, is completely unrestricted in how it’s used.

This law is a fantastic thing – in terms of open knowledge, the US federal government has been by far the most progressive government worldwide, and have produced what must be the largest body of open knowledge by far. (As an Australian, praising the US government is not something I do as a habit, and I don’t want to get into a general discussion on its general merits or otherwise.)

I don’t know that this applies to Change.gov, but it will certainly apply to their work once they’re sworn into office. This choice is a great one in two ways, though:

Firstly, it raises the profile of open licenses (as opposed to imprecise statements limiting reuse to educational and non-commercial purposes) and especially the use of open licenses by governments. Almost all governments around the world, other than the US federal government, claim a copyright on their work (at least as far as I’ve seen). This is not appropriate for work created with public funds. It is a government’s role to serve the people, and anything created with the people’s money should be free to use by the people. (I’m not going to get into politics, but I think this should be uncontroversial.)

Secondly, it’s the right thing to do, to ensure that all comments and contributions are open and require attribution. It’s one thing for government work to be public domain, but I see no downside in requiring a work by non-government individuals to be attributed

So, which other governments are moving in this direction? Local, state, or national, from any and all countries – let’s see a movement towards openness. Please, if you know a government that uses an open license or releases their work as public domain, tell us in the comments and provide a link – or even better, add it straight to our wiki page on Governments and knowledge sharing.

Relevant Appropedia wiki pages:Relevant Appropedia wiki pages:

  • Public Domain Search – an Appropedia project to make public domain content more accessible. (Currently on hold, but if you have skills with the details of custom search engines, please get involved!)