In association with heise online

25 March 2008, 19:45

Three penguins, two wiki facts, and a free partridge recipe

Susanne Schmidt

Part 1: Free music, movies and books

Open Source and Linux are on everyone's lips. Newspapers are always filled with the next internet hype: Web 2.0, social networking, user generated content - and all of it free for everyone. Or is it? Our three-part series goes hunting for the free content available on the net - from entertainment and education to science and research to knitting patterns and photo collections. The first part investigates the entertainment sector: music, movies, and books.

Part 1: Free music, movies and books
Part 2: Free science, research and education
Part 3: Hobbies and culture

It all started with free software, and now it is beginning to happen with the data itself: all across science, art and culture as well as in public institutions, people are remembering the value of freely available information and put data and the results of their work, on the internet for everyone to access. The success of free software strongly contributed to the growing awareness of licences which go beyond "all rights reserved". Wikipedia is only one of the most popular projects of this kind which isn't just about software but rather about what makes the modern world tick: information.

Wikipedia: free information for all
To understand the scope of the political implications of free licences we first need to remember that nowadays, practically anything and everything to do with information is subject to some licence, copyright, patent, or trade mark - depending on applicable regional legislation. Our much-cited information society sustains itself with licensed images and audio files, with licensed texts and raw data. From paper patterns to weather forecasts, from biology data collections to scientific essays, Ordnance Survey maps to literary classics - practically everything is subject to more or less stringent terms of use and can't be copied, let alone altered, freely.

It all becomes really restrictive when raw data and information is presented in a prearranged or compiled way. Take dictionaries - in other words, our mother tongue - as an example: they cannot be copied freely. Readers' corrections to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary? Verb lists available for download? Every true custodian of the English language should really fervently advocate making language itself as freely accessible as possible; after all, free access promotes the publication and sharing of information.

The argument often used is that, after all, a company put in expensive man-hours to create a volume or compile some data, and that it - justifiably - wants to be paid for its work. Let's accept this argument for the moment and ask: what about data which is collected by the government? What about data and information which is not produced by commercial enterprises but is financed directly or indirectly through the taxes paid by the citizens of a country?

Modern nations drag around many centuries' worth of information buildup regulated by the respective statistics and public records legislation. Freely available? Citizens' rights of use? All available to researchers and inquiring minds in digital form on the internet at the click of a button? Far from it. The absurdities of our modern information society culminate in the fact that in some towns and countries, tourists are not even allowed to take pictures of historic monuments or buildings and then publish their pictures on their web page: after all, an image of the Grand Duke Ewan the Bald's castle from the year dot shouldn't be viewed by just anybody.

Free data

We could carry on criticising and describing evidence that suggests how impractical, illogical and detrimental to the future of an information society every single institution's handling of data accessibility is; or, we can simply go the way already chosen before us by the free software movement: create new information and data, and make it as freely accessible as possible to everyone.

Beyond Linux, free BSD derivatives and open source software, a growing supply of free books, articles, images, sheet music and recordings, movies, paper patterns, recipes, dictionaries, language courses, scientific texts, raw data and biological information is being developed. Even some research institutions offer how-tos and other information and explicitly cite the free software world as their inspiration and role model. As in the world of free software there are hybrids and semi-commercial transition models like "freely usable, but copyrighted" - the University of Iceland's Icelandic language course or the dictionaries at are only two examples of many.

Why wear ourselves down in political running battles with legal representatives about free access to certain information if it is much better simply to create new information from scratch? The question of copying material simply doesn't arise if the work is freely licensed - at least in principle.

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