Openness is a wonderful thing. The move toward openness in scholarly communications has expanded access to content to millions of people, sped the advancement of science, and led to the more rapid development of new treatments. Policies regarding openness of data have improved interoperability and allowed new services to flourish in our community. But there can be downsides as well, which we must be mindful of as we navigate a more open future.
One example of these downsides came up for me last week in a conversation about a new project on the display of rights information that was recently approved by ISO's Technical Subcommittee on Identification and Description (TC 46/SC 9). The project was proposed by colleagues in Japan, and a working group to develop a new international standard on this topic is currently forming. U.S.-based experts on rights expression for cultural institutions and those interested in rights display who would like to be involved in the work should reach out to me; outside the U.S., they should contact their national standards body to engage.
The issue with this new initiative is that DPLA and Europeana have already jointly developed a similar project on communicating rights information. The U.S. voted against launching the new project within ISO precisely because of the existing work on this topic, which seemed to many in the community to be sufficient, making the proposed work within ISO duplicative. However, not enough other country's representatives were either aware of this existing effort, convinced of its appropriateness, or persuaded by the availability of the ad hoc work to block the new initiative. Potentially, they saw that advancing the existing project in a more formal environment made sense in their region.
After concluding the call and agreeing on a path forward, I reflected on the openness of the work that DPLA and Europeana had done. It is not the case that ISO will be appropriating the work done by DPLA and Europeana; the two projects will be working together on development of complementary efforts. However, there is no reason why ISO couldn't incorporate the rights expression work in its entirety into an ISO standard, since all of the work on rightsstatements.org is accompanied by the statement that, "Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a CC0 Public Domain Dedication."
I am certainly not advocating here for an appropriation of others' work, nor am I faulting the DPLA and Europeana project leaders for choosing to release their work to the public domain. Certainly, cultural exchange might benefit from more people and organizations doing so, or possibly doing so after a specified period somewhat less than the "limited time" that Congress has chosen for copyright terms. My point is only that once one chooses to release something to the public domain, one cannot thereafter complain about the uses that are made of the content. This includes corporate exploitation, remixing, and reuse. In this particular case, I actively sought to bring the two projects together, since competing guidance on the display of rights information for cultural institutions' content doesn't help address this complex issue. Based on the particular licenses, there was no compulsion to do so.
A frequent argument I have within the standards world concerns the openness of standards. Several organizations, including NISO, have very liberal re-use policies and many make standards freely available. However, NISO standards, while free, are not provided under a CC-BY, CC-0, or similar license, because it is important as a standards-setting body to retain control over what is published. It would not be appropriate for others to take bits and pieces of a standard, remix them, and call them their own. NISO isn't alone in this position and for all its openness, the W3C, for example, has the same restrictions on its standards-I can't take bits of tagging, code, and other elements that comprise HTML5, for example, and republish them as "Todd's Tagging for The Web" (TTFW).
While I appreciate the value of openness for NISO's standards, I recognize that other organizations and communities should be respected in their decision not to make their work open. In fact, just this past month, an important decision was handed down about the incorporation of standards by reference in regulations. Personally, I am pleased about the court ruling because the entire structure of publishing is built upon respect of the author's wishes, whether they lean toward open or restricted material, and we should respect those decisions and the rationale behind them. Simply taking materials and reposting them or repurposing them without permission is just as wrong as walking into someone's house and taking their things. We can encourage people to make things open, but we can't force them to make them open if they choose not to.
NISO has engaged in a few projects to support openness in our community, including the Access and License Indicators project, the Altmetrics initiative, and, of course, our policy on the openness of our own standards. The Discovery to Delivery Topic Committee is also considering a project to explore the discovery of open access content. I expect we will continue to focus on open-related work as it becomes an increasingly ascendant form of distribution.