Why Public Domain?

Acclar hereby releases the content of this blog into the Public Domain.  You are free to do anything you want with these writings, for any purpose, without our permission.  We offer these writings to the public with NO WARRANTY of any kind.

Since Acclar is an open aid data organization, it would be hypocritical not to make our blog (and other, future resources on our site) available as open content.  But you might notice that we’re doing things a bit differently — most open-content web sites use an open-content license, such as the Gnu Free Documentation License or the Creative Commons Attribution License.  We believe that these licenses represent a huge step forward in making information available for an open and transparent society, but they represent only a step, not the final destination.

An “open” license, whether for open-source software, open data, or open content, still attempts to do two things:

  1. enforce a copyright on a resource; and
  2. limit what users can do with the resource.

With an open license, the limitations are generally fairly benign — users are required to give attribution, and sometimes to share their changes on to others — but they still reflect an urge for control, and a mild discomfort around the act of sharing.

Public domain, on the other hand, isn’t a license at all — it’s a complete surrender of all legal rights over a work.  When we release our blog into the public domain, it has no copyright and no legal owner.  Of course, we hold onto ethical rights (shame on you if you plagiarize us and pretend you wrote these postings, and it’s nice to give us credit when you reprint or quote us), but we give up any claim to enforce those in a court of law.

We believe that going all the way to public domain has two significant benefits:

  • people don’t have to waste time worrying about whether they’re complying with the terms of a license, so they will use our content more quickly and more often; and
  • a license is a threat to sue if someone violates its terms, and we don’t think threats are nice (Canadians worry a lot about being nice).

One of Acclar’s founders, David Megginson, has had two positive experiences with public-domain sharing in the past, with the Simple API for XML (SAX) and the OurAirports.com open-data aviation web site.  In both cases, the public-domain information caught on quickly and found a large number of users and (re)implementers, and — despite the fact that there was no license requiring it — people in blogs, magazine articles, books, apps, etc. have been very gracious about attribution.

The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Licensing Standard strikes a good balance, by allowing a participant to use an open-data license or release aid data directly into the public domain.  At Acclar, we believe that any sharing of open aid data, licensed or public domain, is a good thing for aid transparency and effectiveness.


3 thoughts on “Why Public Domain?

  1. Hi David, interesting read. I do like to add my reasons to use a Creative Commons license on my works, though, as the situation here in The Netherlands might be a bit different:

    - Under Dutch law, I can’t declare non-ownership of copyright, I can only declare I won’t exercise my rights (not a license) or grant explicit rights (with eg. CC license).

    - Anyone can make a derivative work of something in the public domain and then becomes the copyright owner of that derivative work, without an obligation to make it available as public domain or under a creative commons license. But I really want people who re-use to “join the party”.


    • Hi, Rolf – thanks for the comment. That’s an interesting comment on repudiation of rights vs public domain under Dutch law.

      I do understand your point about a viral open license vs PD. We discussed that for a while with SAX a bit over a decade ago. In the event, I think SAX got a much bigger benefit from not trying to restrict derivative works, even though some people almost certainly created closed derivative works from it.

      For most open stuff (software, content, or data), the biggest threat isn’t misappropriation, but lack of interest — you can see that by browsing around somewhere like SourceForge, and seeing how the vast majority of Open-Source projects die within a few months from lack of interest. I believe that no license (or a non-viral one) can increase initial adoption — if your project gets popular enough that you have to worry about people misappropriating it, then you’ve already beat the odds and succeeded.

      For OurAirports, I discovered a different kind of benefit from not using a viral open license. Quite a number of people have created closed-source apps (web or smartphone) using the OurAirports data. I don’t make any money from those apps, obviously (I doubt most of them do, either), but because their apps depend on the quality of the data, many of those people started coming back to OurAirports to keep the data up to date. People spend hundreds of hours every month updating the open data on OurAirports so that their closed apps will be correct and their customers won’t complain. That’s a huge win for open data, and one that I would never have expected.

  2. Excellent critique, I loved the digitalis medical records bit

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