Recently John McCain was in the news for advocating Fair Use for his campaign videos on YouTube (Update: McCain protests YouTube’s removal of his campaign videos, Heather Havenstein, Computerworld, October 15, 2008). It is an interesting story and now Lawrence Lessig puts it all in perspective for us:
- Copyright and Politics Don’t Mix, by Lawrence Lessig, Op-Ed, The New York Times, October 21, 2008.
While the issue at hand deals with political speech, the same problems and issues apply to government information.
Lessig says that the “explosion in citizen-generated political speech has been met with a troubling response: the increasing use of copyright laws as tools for censorship.” His solution is to change the copyright law:
It would be far better if copyright law were narrowed to those contexts in which it serves its essential creative function — encouraging innovation and ensuring that artists get paid for their work — and left alone the battles of what criticisms candidates for office, and their supporters, are allowed to make.
While a lot of government information is free of copyright, or is supposed to be, strict interpretation and aggressive use of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has led to restrictions on access to government information. Perhaps the most visible example is in Google Books, which blocks full text access to its scans of government publications because they “might” be covered by copyright. (See, for example, Oversight of U.S. Government Intelligence Functions: Hearings Before the Committee on Government Operations, United States Senate, Ninety-fourth Congress, Second Session, Published by U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1976.)
But copyright is only part of the problem that limits access to what should be free, open, re-usable, government information. Even if we get reasonable changes to the Copyright law, we will need more. Governments will have want to make their content freely usable. They will have to apply aggressive open-access policies to their own content. This will mean avoiding technological locks (DRM), eschewing contractual and licensing restrictions on content, actively promoting and using open formats for digital materials, and actively labeling content as open and freely usable and re-usable.