What We Can Learn About Copyright From Archimedes

3. June, 2012

Archimedes is long dead but we know about him because he left books and other people wrote about him. In  William Noel’s TED talk about how a team recovered the Archimedes Palimpsest, William made some very important points (starting at @11:20):

Now, all this data that we collected, all the images, all the raw images, all the transcriptions that we made and that sort of thing, have been put online under a Creative Commons license for anyone to use for any commercial purpose.

Why did the owner of the manuscript do this? He did this because he understands data as well as books. Now, the thing to do with books, if you want to ensure their long term utility, is to hide them away in closets and let very few people look at them. The thing to do with data, if you want it to survive, is to let it out and have everyone have it with as little control  on that data as possible. And that’s what he did.

And institutions can learn from this. Because institutions at the moment confine their data with copyright restrictions and that sort of thing. And if you want to look at Medieval manuscripts on the web, at the moment, you have to go to  National Library of Wise Site[?] or the Universal Library of Access Site[?] which is about the most boring way in which you can deal with digital data.

What you want to do is to aggregate it all together. Because the Web of ancient manuscripts of the future isn’t going to be built by institutions. It’s going to be built by users … people who just want to curate their own glorious selection of beautiful things.

This really explains the dilemma we find ourselves in today. Artists want to share their data (if not, why would they write books, songs, plays in the first place?) But with non-digital media, sharing means wear. Books get damaged by opening them.

Data, on the other hand, gets damaged by not copying it. The NASA almost lost data tapes from the Apollo missions (see Sticky Moondust) – if they hadn’t shared a copy with Australia. Companies around the globe struggle with data stored in legacy formats that no one can read anymore because the software refuses to work on modern PCs.

The old copyright made sense when the media was valuable. Today, the media costs nothing. No company or country in the world would be able to found Wikipedia. Just think of the legal issues they’d have to clear. Struggles over who “owns” what. Power games over control.

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