Whose right’s right

If you went to the National Digital Forum last week you’d have had to sleep pretty deeply to miss the discussion on copyright, or more generally, rights in the online world. Whose rights matter most seemed to depend on what side of the fence you happen to sit (and there didn’t seem to be many with a foot on both sides). Was it a generational shift we noticed? Probably, but more worrying was a lack of ambition to understand what was happening on the other side.

It might have helped both sides to think more about how people are likely to use content and how many of the norms of academic attribution will persist. George Oates, in her presentation on Flickr Commons, demonstrated this aptly: in telling us how she identified a photo of the Hagia Sofia she clearly identified and acknowledged each source in the trail of her research. She knew her audience and used the right tools to give us confidence and comfort in her analysis.

Where norms of attribution persist, it’s precisely because the creator of a work or an idea and the person who re-uses it are talking to the same audience. Making content available for re-using is just helping more of that traditional academic conversation happen.

Where the norms don’t persist, it may not matter: maybe the content is being re-used to talk to an audience with which the academic tradition isn’t – or hasn’t been – interested. That the idea has spread is something the academic community should be interested in, regardless of how it’s been attributed. At some point down the line someone will make the connection between Work A and its unattributed derivatives, and close the loop by putting the creator of the derivative onto the creator of Work A.

It’s a simple conversation to imagine: “Hey, that idea you’re playing with? It’s a lot like what so-and-so talks about in her book such-and-such. Go read it.”

Ideas spread, but never so far that you can’t tell whose they are.