Copyright and the right to information

CC on orange by Yamashita Yohei

CC on orange by Yamashita Yohei

Infomediaries, people who help with communication of information play a key role in the digital communication ecosystem.  They often take public datasets and disseminate it to the public, adding value to it in the process.  For example, when I searched for apartments in the Bay Area, I used a service that took information from the police, railways, craigslist and other sources and plotted them on a map so that I can evaluate the apartments for rent by looking at the crime rate in the area, distance to the grocery store, availability of public transport and other information.

Such an app could not have been created without the availability of multiple datasets with ‘open licenses’ that the creator could access and disseminate in her platform.  Without the permission to redistribute, the use of technology for transparency could be seriously compromised.  To take just one case, Germany threatened to sue Carl Malamud for putting a set of public safety laws online.

I believe that without the help of infomediaries, we will never be able to use digital technologies to their full potential in creating a regime of transparency.  Their work can be compromised without clear legal permissions to use and redistribute information.  This is where ‘open licensing’ enters the picture.

Open licenses provide users of information a guideline on how the information can be used.  Creative Commons has created a spectrum of licenses that start with totally open licenses in which the use can do anything with the digital data.  Restrictions can be added by saying that the information should be attributed, should not be modified or that it should not be used for commercial purposes. makes it easy for anyone to create such licenses and it has legal validity in many countries.

While their work started with a focus on artists, CC has increasingly been working with governments on the licensing the release of public data.  Incorporating that as a part of the right to information can offer legal protection to infomediaries, which can go a long way in fostering such services.

The radical potential

The really radical potential for CC lies in creating public access for publically funded work.  As I have argued repeatedly in this website, there is a real danger to people’s right to information when public work is contracted to private organizations who are not covered by right to information laws.  If the contract with the organization specifies that the data held by the organizations should have CC attributes with few limitations, it can have radical impact in opening privately held public data.

At this point, this is an idea in motion, and a lot more needs to happen for it to materialize in reality.  Those who are interested in this should follow the work on Open Access and Open Educational Resources, and also the Open Policy Network.

The slide decks below by Timothy Vollmer of Creative Commons provides a great introduction to these issues.


See also presentation on copy right today compared to Creative Commons licensing:


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.