iCommons 2007: Retrospective Reflections

The iCommons conference in Dubrovnik, where I’ve been for the last few days, finished yesterday. This has been a great event (a big well done to Heather Ford and all the other organizers) and I’ve had the chance to talk to a very large number of interesting people — renewing old acquaintances and making new ones. Thanks in large part to generous sponsorship the conference was also able to bring together a very good selection of the ‘Free Culture’ groups from around the world.

All of the sessions were good but particular highlights included:

  • The excellent panel on the philosophy of the commons which debated, among much else, whether having definitions of ‘Freedom’ or ‘Openness’ are useful or are just an obstruction (perhaps unsurprisingly given my prior, I still think definitions like the open knowledge definition or the free cultural works definition are valuable though I think we need to be very careful about distinguishing between a definition and a campaign).
  • A very considered talk from Yochai Benkler (I was particularly struck by the vehemence of his “If you take anything from my work it is that I am not a techno-determinist”).
  • The presentation from the Dutch National Archives (Beeld en Geluid) in which they announced that they have received an 173 million Euro grant in order to digitize their archive and make it available to the public. This is a massive undertaking covering 100 years of content including 137,200 hours of video, 22,510 hours of film, 1,239,000 hours of audio and 2,900,000 photos. A particularly interesting extra detail here was the fact that they had done a proper ‘economic’ study based on willingness-to-pay estimates, prior to obtaining the grant, which had indicated that the project would deliver societal benefits well in excess of its costs.
  • And last, but not least, a conversation with Joi Ito and others on the nature of happiness (the question of the relationship of happiness, sharing and the increasingly networked nature of society seemed to come up frequently over the last few days).

Other important information included internal CC rumblings indicating that there will soon be a CC communique on the question of database rights along the lines that, where they exist, they should be waived and the licenses should be restricted to copyright. Personally, I’m still undecided on whether this is the best approach but conversations with John Willbanks and Jamie Boyle during the Summit have given me much food for thought. Another piece of big news was Lessig’s announcement that he is going to start reducing his current commitments on ‘Free Culture’ and ‘Open Knowledge’ issues — for full details see this summary of his keynote address.

There still remains a very great deal to be done in all of the areas covered by the Summit — from open education to film to sustainable business models. I also think we are going to have to be clearer about the fact that Creative Commons does not necessarily equal ‘open’ (non-commercial no-derivatives anyone?) and that the set of CC licenses are too broad to define a coherent ‘commons’ — far too often one heard people saying things like ‘my site takes CC content’ as if this defined a clear standard.

However this is to expected at such an early stage and when one contrasts this with the situation 2 years ago when it wasn’t even clear that iCommons would be anything more than the international license coordination group it is clear we have already come far. I will certainly be interested to see how the ‘movement’ (if we can yet call it that) will evolve and develop — I’d like to see greater prominence given to other areas of knowledge, after all the ‘commmons’ of data is as important as the ‘commons’ of culture — but events such as these mark important steps on the way to a more ‘open’ future.

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