Intellectual property and privacy: where they intersect

May 27th, 2009 by Grace Meng

Creative Commons recently launched a Creative Commons license application for Facebook.  You can now download a Creative Commons license and declare your willingness to share your photos, videos, and even status updates.

For those who aren’t intellectual property geeks, Creative Commons is nonprofit organization that’s worked hard to change the norm around intellectual property law.  In a world where music companies crack down on kids on YouTube videos singing copyrighted songs, Creative Commons has made sharing of intellectual property something the cool kids want to do.  It’s created different licenses by which you can indicate how you’re willing for your work to be used, as long as it’s attributed to you.  Do a search for “Creative Commons” on Flickr, and you’ll see there are lots of people who want to increase what’s in the public domain.

This news is fascinating to me for a couple of reasons.  First, as ReadWriteWeb points out, how will the Creative Commons licenses interact with Facebook’s terms of use, by which Facebook has “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook”?  Right now, you can control who you share with within Facebook.  Facebook, however, controls how your information is shared outside of Facebook, whether with marketers and advertisers or with researchers.  Putting a Creative Commons license on your profile is kind of an awesome way to reassert control, even if it’s not yet clear what that will mean.

Second, it’s a good reminder that even if Facebook is all about sharing, there’s a difference between posting something on Facebook and putting something into the public domain. It might seem counterintuitive that anyone would put a “sharing” license on what they post on Facebook.  But even if you have your profile public for all the world to see, you haven’t actually given permission for anything on your profile to be used anywhere else.

Which leads me to my last point: this new license for Facebook could have some fascinating implications for our debates about online privacy.

We at the Common Data Project are also interested in how a license could help signal sharing preferences, but for personal information rather than intellectual property.   In the spirit of Creative Commons, we want to create ways for people to clearly indicate their willingness for certain personal data to be put into a “common” pool, where it is anonymized and aggregated to individual specifications before being made available to the public for research, analysis, and other public uses.   People generally don’t “own” their personal information the way they own their car or the photos they take, but we wanted to both 1) make sharing information for public good a cool thing, and 2) create a new way to signal privacy preferences.

And as this new Creative Commons license for Facebook makes clear, the line between intellectual property and personal information is becoming increasingly blurred.  The kind of licensing system we’re imagining will have different specifications than the Creative Commons licenses, but it’s great to see movement in similar directions and I’m curious to see how our work will continue to intersect.

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