Posts Tagged ‘Intellectual Property’

Creative Commons-style licenses for personal information, Part III: What are the challenges?

Monday, November 30th, 2009

In the first two posts, I described how personal information licenses might work and why they might be useful in shifting the debate around how personal information is collected and used. Sharing information could be cool!  People could exercise choices!  Companies could be pressured to offer similar choices!

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be that easy.  There are certainly obstacles and challenges to creating a system of personal information licenses for common use, which I describe below.

1) Personal information isn’t property—why do you want to propertize it?

The short answer is, we don’t. We’re well aware that there is a history of academic debate on this issue, pro and con around whether making personal information personal property would make it easier to protect individual privacy.  Although the issues are certainly interesting, we don’t want to step into that debate and we don’t think we have to for the licenses we’re imagining.

First, let’s examine how personal information is viewed today.  I can’t own a fact.  I can’t own the fact that I’m 32, but I can have copyright in an essay in which I state I am 32 and I can have copyright in a database that includes the fact I am 32 if I’m creative in building the structure of that database (in the U.S.).  We can understand the reasoning behind this.  We want to live in a world where facts are “free” to be used and reused without any need to pay a licensing fee.

But the simple declaration, “You can’t own a fact” doesn’t begin to describe the many ways in which people are collecting data, selling it, renting it, and otherwise making money off of it.  When a company sells a mailing list, it may not “own” the fact that I live at XYZ Avenue in Brooklyn, but it certainly is using it to its advantage.  Why, then, should the fact that I can’t own the fact of where I live keep me from sharing that data as I like and trying to control it in new ways?

The digital revolution is forcing us to think beyond property/not property.  Facts have become valuable even when they’re not technically “owned” by anyone.  I haven’t come up with some snappy new terms to use, but the issue should no longer be defined solely around “property/not property.”


Some new businesses seem to be working off this model. Blue Kai and KindClicks, while collecting personal information for market research, provide individuals with a way of stating their preferences and monetizing their data.  KindClicks, for example, allows individuals who contribute data to then donate the money they make off their data to the charity of their choice.  BlueKai collects data through cookies, but provides a link on their site by which users can see what information has been gathered about them. Those who want to opt out can.  Those that choose to participate in BlueKai’s registry can then choose to donate a portion of their “earnings” to charity.

We don’t actually want to model these companies’ ways of valuing data.  CDP’s mission isn’t to make sure that everyone gets a dollar here or a dollar there every time their data is accessed.  To us, the value of such information is immense to the public and yet not easily measurable in dollars.  But we do want to explore the idea that we could just take control of our data and obtain value from it, even if it’s the non-monetary, social value of providing something useful to the public.

2) How would these licenses be enforceable? What about existing terms of use on online forums, social networks?

This is a big question.  I’m not sure what kind of dataset could be licensable and the extent to which a license could cover facts within that dataset.  Could the license really encourage new forms of sharing if there was no way to prevent people from using individual facts within that dataset outside of the license terms?  How useful would such a license be?

Arguably, Creative Commons licenses are not easily enforced.  They certainly have an easier case for arguing that they are enforceable; there has been one case I know of where a court upheld the terms of the license.  But the vast majority of people using photographs, art, and other work outside the terms of the license do it without impunity.  Most CC license holders never find out their Flickr photo was used outside the license terms, and most wouldn’t have the resources to do anything about it even if they did find out.  Yet CC licenses have still managed to impact societal norms on intellectual property.

Personal information licenses may still have an effect, then, on societal norms about how information is collected and shared regardless of how much the licenses are litigated.  Even the process of litigation may help us as a society have a smarter conversation about current practices.

As to the objection that the licenses wouldn’t work in the face of existing terms of use for social networks and other sites — the fact that I might not be able to “license” my own information that I put myself on Facebook just underscores why creative, proactive, even aggressive strategies might be necessary.

3) Why would you encourage people to put their personal information out in public?  Isn’t it irresponsible to encourage people to provide information that could increase risk of identity theft and fraud?

I don’t want to dismiss this concern off-hand.  But as my father likes to say, everything in life has good and bad.  There are many things we do that are risky, and we try our best to minimize those risks, both as a society when we pass laws and as individuals when we take more particular, personal measures.  Driving is a very dangerous activity.  It is also a very valuable one.  Many governments have decided to legislatively require the wearing of seatbelts.  Many of us personally make the decision to practice other safe driving techniques that aren’t legally required.

We think it’s imperative that we, as a society, think hard and carefully about how to minimize the risks of personal information being used, collected, and exchanged.  Creative Commons-style licenses for personal information sharing may or may not be the best way to address today’s privacy problems.  I’m curious to hear if you think the risks outweigh the benefits and why.  But to shut down the idea solely because the risk exists — that is not going to help push the conversation forward.


Licenses for making personal information more widely available for research and public use—would they work?  Maybe, maybe not.  Worth exploring?  Most definitely.

We’d love to hear your questions and comments.

Intellectual property and privacy: where they intersect

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

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.

Peer Review

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Crowdsourcing meets…patent law. Businessweek dissects the Peer-to-Patent Community Patent Review Pilot, a project of New York Law School.

[W]hy do many leading corporations support an initiative that appears designed to surface more information to challenge patent applications? In short, Peer-to-Patent offers the potential to deliver stronger, more litigation-proof patents in shorter time and lower cost. By increasing transparency at the outset and surfacing potential issues regarding prior art earlier, this process can preempt very costly litigation down the road. In an important way, Peer-to-Patent becomes a powerful insurance program to mitigate risk of patent challenges.

The hard work of slogging through “prior art” (earlier work that may be similar or relevant) is done by law students and volunteers. The project was recently re-upped and has the support of General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and, critically, the U.S. Patent Office.

Who says government can’t innovate?

A Tune in the Key of Money

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

The more value these stocks lose, the peppier Johannes Kreidler’s “Stock Charts Melodies” sound. How ironic! (Yes! Intended!)

Lehman Music

Kreidler, who is from Germany and not yet 30 years old, used Microsoft Songsmith to compose the melodies. He linked musical notes to the declining values of shares of several corporations you have definitely heard of, to produce music you would never listen to for any other reason, but that the video is entertaining.

More thought-provoking is Kreidler’s 2008 project, the somewhat confusingly-named “Product Placements.”  Actually, it’s a protest against German intellectual property rules, which require permission be given even for the tiniest musical samples.

Kreidler challenged GEMA, a membership organization for musicians, to process the permissions required for a piece of music containing 7,020 samples. In Germany, that’s a LOT of paperwork! The 33-second composition itself is probably not destined for your iPod. But the 15-minute doc about Kreidler’s absurd request, and GEMA’s absurd responses (subtitles in English) is delightful and very funny.

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