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Change.gov Swaps Traditional Copyright for Creative Commons

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, December 1 2008

Creative Commons LicenseIn what can only be seen as a major coup for those of us who have been hoping that the Obama Administration would embrace a saner and more sensible thinking on questions of copyright than is the norm in Washington, Change.gov has swapped a strict copyright policy for among the liberalist of Creative Commons licenses.

Creative Commons (CC), a scheme dreamt up by Stanford professor Larry Lessig, works within the framework of American copyright law to allow content owners to offer up their works however they see fit. Change.gov has adopted what's known as an Attribution 3.0 Unported License which allows anyone to use and even "remix" whatever's found on the site, just as long as they tip their hat to the transition project as the original source of the material.

As a rather strange government-private hybrid entity, the Obama-Biden Transition Project doesn't appear to be covered by government copyright rules which presume that what the government creates should be freely useable by the public.

But what's good for the governing is good for the governed. The new liberal licensing doesn't just apply to the team working behind the scenes on the transition. Whatever bright thinking any of us submit to Change.gov -- whether our own "American Story" or a comment on the ongoing discussion over health care -- binds us to a "non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free license to the rest of the world" for that content.

Content that the transition project creates but posts on third-party services like YouTube aren't necessarily covered by these liberalized copyright terms, making it particularly important that the transition team is posting the raw Quicktime footage of its addresses and video spots.

All that said, there are signs that team Obama is still eager to cover its rump on traditional copyright. The site's copyright policy section supports a commitment to the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The incoming administration promises to draw and quarter anyone who infringes others' copyright on the site by, say, copying-and-pasting whole texts they don't have the rights to.

Change.gov made the copyright policy change this weekend, dumping its strict copyright plan for the CC licence. But it takes eagle-eyed observers to catch these changes. The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, the web's institutional memory, isn't capturing changes on the transition hub. Tech publisher Tim O'Reilly has argued that Change.gov needs to be put under revision control so that we have a complete record of the site's evolution.

CC founder Lessig is quite pleased: "This is great news about a subject that's harder than it seems...I'm glad the thought in this administration led to the right conclusion, so quickly, and in the midst of so much else going on."

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