Copyleft for science?
Free Online Scholarship (FOS) Newsletter
February 6, 2002
by Peter Suber
_NewScientist_ is intrigued by the success of open source software and the claims that similar licensing arrangements for scientific literature could enhance research.  To inform readers and test the hypothesis, it published an article by Graham Lawton in its February 2 issue on the general idea of "copyleft", an alternative to copyright conceived by Richard Stallman in the early 1980's.

"Copyleft" is a nickname for the GNU General Public License (GPL) that covers "free software" in Stallman's sense of the term (FOSN for 1/30/02).  Because Lawton's article is itself copylefted, "you can copy it, redistribute it, reprint it in whole or in part, and generally play around with it as long as you, too, release your version under a copyleft...."  I've posted a copy to the FOS discussion forum.

To stay on the safe side, _NewScientist_ has also copyrighted Lawton's article, but has waived many of the rights traditionally retained by copyright holders.

Because copylefted literature can be copied and distributed freely, copyleft is one way to license literature for FOS.  It's not the only way of course.  Traditional copyright is 100% compatible with FOS, if the copyright holder consents to permit free online access and copying.

My only criticism of Lawton's article is that he implies that copyleft is, or could be, beneficial for science, perhaps more beneficial than copyright, but he doesn't tell us why.  He spends more than three-fourths of the article on copyleft for software, music, and even law, leaving himself very little space to discuss copyleft for scientific literature.  When he finally gets to this topic, he focuses on Nupedia and Wikipedia (FOSN for 10/26/01), resources that most scientists would not recognize as serious.

If scientists were not only allowed to view, copy, and distribute articles without charge, but also allowed to modify them and distribute the modifications, would that benefit science?  It might, but I'm still looking for someone who is willing to be specific and detailed in telling us how.

NewScientist editorial explanation of the copyleft experiment
(Thanks to many readers who sent this in at once.)

Graham Lawton, The Great Giveaway (the copylefted article)

Copy of the Lawton article in the FOS discussion forum
(Ready for further discussion.)

Terms of the copyleft license used by _NewScientist_ (there are other variations)

GNU General Public License (GPL)

* Postscript.  I hope you can do better that Lawton.  What does copyleft have to offer scientists and scholars?  What benefits does it create for research that we can't have, or can't have as easily, without it?  If you have thoughts, please post them to our discussion forum.

FOS discussion forum
(Anyone may read; only subscribers may post; subscription is free.)

Here are some articles that might help the discussion more than Lawton's.

Jan Newmarch, "Lessons from Open Source:  Intellectual Property and Courseware"
(More about online teaching materials than research literature.)

Bryan Pfaffenberger, "Why Open Content Matters"
(Explicit that making derivative works out of texts is as important as making them out of source code.  But more specific for non-scholarly texts than scholarly ones.)

Michael Stutz, "Applying Copyleft to Non-Software Information"
(More specific on the "how to" than the benefits.)


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