(This post is part of Copyright week, during which a range of organizations highlights key principles that should guide copyright policy – right in time for the European copyright consultations. Please also read posts published previously on the CC blog: on the public domain and on Open Access. Today’s theme is “You bought it, you own it”).

It’s ever harder to tinker with things

We live in societies, in which equipment and gadgets are ever more often „black boxes”. As users and consumers, we don’t have access to their internals – we cannot fix them, adapt them, modify. Sometimes it’s an issue of having advanced technical skills, and sometimes of owning a really strange screwdriver that will fit proprietary screws. And companies differ in their approaches – with a spectrum running between gadgets that just won’t open, and those that allow a „do it yourself” approach.

With physical objects, we understand well what owning them means, and how much control over them we have. But the same issues of ownership and control apply to symbolic goods – the digital files and content streams through which we experience our culture, education and science. In their case, it’s easy to confuse ownership with mere possibility of access and use – but without real control. And copyright is the mechanism that determines the extent of your ownership of a work.

What about digital files?

Some aspects of what you can do with digital files are determined by technology. You chose „copy”, but nothing happens the digital management system, defined by the seller, has just kicked in and limited your rights as an owner. But copyright choices made in license agreements, as well as general rules of copyright, are just as important. Even if you can copy a file, you might still be committing a crime.

True ownership of works in digital formats faces today many challenges. The shift to cloud computing, and concurrent rise of streaming services, significantly complicates the issue of our rights as users. Ever more often we access works that seem and feel as if they were really owned, but in fact are only made available to users as a service – with a very limited set of attached user rights, and with a reserved right of the content owner to cease the service at almost any moment.

How to give others the right to “tinker”?

But the opposite question can be asked – what can we do to provide users with rights, if we believe that cultural, educational or scientific works should be tinkered with, fixed, reused, recycled, copied and passed on to others?

At the technical level, all this can be done with files by virtue of their character as digital object: copying is error-free and costs practically nothing. Reuse is easy with a range of cheap or even free digital tools. The Net is an underlying infrastructure for sustainable and effective sharing. But things are more complicated at the legal level. Default copyright law makes digital content equivalent to physical objects that are meant to be carried – but lack handles; meant to be opened – but are fitted with non-standard screws. User rights are limited as they are by default reserved by rights-owners.

Open licensing, of the type that Creative Commons promotes, is a solution to this problem. For this reason, public policies need to address licensing, and not just technical or economic barriers to access to culture and knowledge. Many Open Access policies avoid licensing issues. They are still a huge step towards making culture, education or science available. But they stop short of giving us rights beyond access itself. This fact might have historic reasons, as Open Access to scientific research – as a movement – has a much longer track record than similar movements in culture or education. And in science, reuse of the research paper is not a significant stakes – one does not experiment with the scientific paper, but with formulas and materials described by it.

Educational resources want to be tinkered with

The case is very different with education, where educators work directly with content. The best of them tinker and reuse them in the process – and then have an urge to share with their peers. Similar arguments could be made with regard to culture, where what we now call a remix fit into a long tradition of artistic practise. The argument is in particular strong for public domain works – heritage that’s meant to be shared and used.

Makers, hackers and fixers teach us about the advantages of truly owning the things we have. And if you agree that we should be able to lift the hoods of our cars and fix them – then you should also care about real ownership of non-material good. This means caring about how copyright affects such ownership, and monitoring practices of commercial entities in this regard. But it also means open licensing of works – so that our education, culture and knowledeg is something that can be not just passively experienced, but tinkered with.