Reaching Agreement On The Public Domain For Science


Photo outside the Panton Arms pub in Cambridge, UK, licensed to the public under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike by jwyg (Jonathan Gray).

Today marked the public announcement of a set of principles on how to treat data, from a legal context, in the sciences. Called the Panton Principles, they were negotiated over the summer between myself, Rufus Pollock, Cameron Neylon, and Peter Murray-Rust. If you’re too busy to read them directly, here’s the gist: publicly funded science data should be in the public domain, full stop.

If you know me and my work, this is nothing new. We have been saying this since late 2007. I’ve already gotten a dozen emails asking me why this is newsworthy, when it’s actually a less normative version of the Science Commons protocol for open access to data (we used words like “must” and “must not” instead of the “should” and “should not” of the principles).

It’s newsworthy to me because it represents a ratification of the ideals embodied in the protocol by two key groups of stakeholders. First, real scientists – Cameron and Peter are two of the most important working scientists in the open science movement. Getting real scientists into the fold, endorsing the importance of the public domain, is essential. They’re also working in the UK, which has some copyright issues around data that can complicate things in a way we forget about here in the post-colonial Americas.

Second, it’s newsworthy because Rufus and I both signed it. Rufus helped to start the Open Knowledge Foundation, and he’s an important scholar of the public domain. We’re in many ways in the same fraternity – we care about “open” deeply, and we want the commons to scale and grow, because we believe in its role in innovation and creation…indeed, in its role in humanity.

But we’re on different sides of a passionate debate about data and licenses. I’m not going to recapitulate it here, you can find it in the googles if you want. Suffice to say we have argued about the role of the public domain as a first principle in general for data, as opposed to the specifics of data in public funded science. But for both of us to sign onto something like this means that even in the midst of heated argument we can find common ground – public money should mean public science, no licenses, no controls on innovation and reuse, globally.

It’s important for the science part. It’s also a good lesson, I hope, that even those of us who find themselves on opposite sides of arguments inside open are usually fighting for the same overall goals. I’ll keep arguing for my points, and Rufus will keep arguing for his, but that should never keep us from remembering the truly common goals we share inside the movement. I’m proud to be a part of it.

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