This Revolution Should Be Downloadable

You may have heard of Creative Commons, which helps us creative folks distribute our work in open formats. But here is Open Access, which is a similar proposal to not only distribute scientific articles in open-format, but also to maintain access via open, accessible databases.

Although they do not offer the different levels of protection as Creative Commons does, they do take it a step further by arguing that permissions are only half the battle. The database is equally important, or opening one's re-print permissions is no different from having a CC blog.

Here is their Open Access Publication Definition, pulled from the Statement on the Bethesda meeting on Open Access in 2003:

An Open Access Publication[1] is one that meets the following two conditions:

1. The author(s) and copyright holder(s) grant(s) to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship[2], as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use.

2. A complete version of the work and all supplemental materials, including a copy of the permission as stated above, in a suitable standard electronic format is deposited immediately upon initial publication in at least one online repository that is supported by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, interoperability, and long-term archiving (for the biomedical sciences, PubMed Central is such a repository).


1. Open access is a property of individual works, not necessarily journals or publishers.

2. Community standards, rather than copyright law, will continue to provide the mechanism for enforcement of proper attribution and responsible use of the published work, as they do now.

I like this for several reasons (besides the fact of its general opposition to intellectual property arguments).

1. It notes that "Open Access" is a distinction of the work itself--in other words, not the author, printer, publisher, or content provider. The work itself is denoted to be free and clear of copyright restrictions.

2. Related to the previous, "Open Access" does not mean that the work is free from copyright by its authors. You can copyright it, CC it, chisel it in stone if you want. All the denotation means it that the work itself must, in addition to whatever else, be available free, forever, and to whomever.

3. Furthermore, it specifically states that an Open Access Publication is available digitally. This is not a free-for-all, bootleg as you like permission. You can't print and sell copies. But it does this without the proscription of CC's "non-comm" category by taking advantage of the digital medium. By forcing it to be available "in any digital medium", it is by substantial fact making it free, un-controllable by material means such as DRM or anything else. "Any digital medium", means, materially, free and endlessly distributable.

This is perhaps the most important feature of the statement. In an essay I wrote about digital reproduction and intellectual property, I argued that the change digital reproduction engenders to our material conditions is forcing us to consider "property", and accordingly, labor, in new ways. Open Access takes this principle up directly by not simply stipulating that a work is "free property", in the form of Creative Commons, which despite intentions, still recognizes the material fact of intellectual property as a form. On the contrary, Open Access does an end run around old-form notions of property by defining a new sort of property: it takes digital reproduction as the de facto material process for its publications, because if information must be available in digital form, it is simply inconceivable that the content could be owned as property in the old way. You want to print journals? Fine, make a business of it, go wild. But if you want to publish, it better be Open Access, and therefore, digital.

4. Which leads to the fourth point. By taking this approach they are ignoring the form of production entirely, and focusing on content. If a document is available in any digital format, it cannot really be formatted or typeset. The goal is the propagation of the information: plain text. As a writer, printer, and publisher, I abhor plain text. Typesetting is part of the art. But these are scientists, and they are interested in the conclusions of research--publications, not publishing. And so, through this selective targeting of text via the material conditions of information reproduction, they are absolutely brilliant in crafting this definition. They allow authors and publishers to retain any rights they want, as long as it is available absolutely free, digitally. This should in no way impact publishing. People who want to read books, subscribe to journals, and collect first editions can go on doing so. But the people who need access to the information, like students, researchers, historians, database compilers, and etc. will have all of the text for free. They are drawing a line between published materials, and digitally-available text, and are doing so clearly, distinctly, and concisely.

5. The second half of the definition deals with the digital access--which is the current issue, in my opinion. Copyright is dead; that fight is over. Of course, there are still partisans out there in them hills, but everybody knows we're not going back to the pre-mp3 days. The fight currently, is one for access, which could potentially be more complicated. The Google Book controversy, for example, is exactly what's important these days. All books will be scanned eventually, and I don't think anyone has a problem with that. The big deal is not that the books will be scanned, it is that Google will hold the keys to the library. Of course, they've made many homages and odes to the "ease" with which content rights holders will be able to "manage" their works through a no-doubt free Google app. But who are you going through to manage your rights? Google. Who has control the second your rights lapse? Google. Who controls who gets to access, and more important in the days of masses of content, when and at what rank? Google. Google is shaping up to be the Amazon of digital books, because they are doing what Amazon did right the first time--be the paradigm of digital access to ____. Amazon chose print books, and "look up something on Amazon" is the Internet-synonym for the common task of finding something the way the all-mighty search engine is for search. Amazon chose wrong with Kindle, because they still thought digital content was the same as print content (DRM). Google choose correctly, betting there would be much more money in free content than in paid. Which Napster was popular, the old, illegal Napster, or the new, crappy subscription service Napster? And Google Book Search, it is becoming increasingly clear, will remain legal. The problem is, the analogy to Napster is not true, because with Napster you could download your mp3, but with Book Search it's all on the Internet. Cloud based, in this case, means you don't actually own the material, you simply get to stare at it from the ground. And the best and only view is on Google's grassy hillside.

Hence, the requirement in part two of the definition of Open Access, stating that the publication should be "deposited immediately upon initial publication in at least one online repository that is supported by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, interoperability, and long-term archiving". Google likes to pretend it is an academic institution, scholarly society, and maybe even a government agency, (Always look to the future with a fear of the feet of the giants of today!) but it is none of these things. "At least one" is the key. Does Google Book Search allow you to copy one of their works to another database? Why not? Because controlling digital media is about controlling access--the work itself does not matter. Open Access has realized this next fight, much as Google has, and is putting itself on the side of information's freedom.

So, I like this Open Access. It's a major step forward, not just for science (the importance of which for humanitarian goals is immediately obvious), but for property theory in general. We are moving towards a new conception of property and labor, and this is a part of it.

That said, I don't think I am ready to contribute any of my work to Open Access, as a writer. A good amount of my writing is available online for free, via CC non-comm (see the bottom footer of the blog, for example). But to let it completely out of my creative control, I'm not quite ready. Then again, this blog has only been in existence for a little over two years, and anything I would consider "publishable" has been written in about the same time period. Maybe once it's aged a bit, I will feel differently. Also, if I had a teaching job paying the bills, I might be totally fine with giving the fruits of my "research" out for free and letting it completely out of my control. Who knows--time will tell.

The one thing I'm sure of, is that standards like Creative Commons and Open Access have definitely helped me move in the direction of a new relationship towards my production and my product, both intellectually, and to its actual physical/digital incarnations.

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