English: Open Data stickers

Image via Wikipedia

Openness is undeniably cool right now, at least if you move in the slightly odd circles that I do. Openly available scientific papers are disrupting the world of scholarly publishing (which may not be all good, but that’s a post for another day). Openly available university courses are finally beginning to work out how to offer meaningful accreditation to students. Openly accessible data from government agencies around the world bulks out almost every data marketplace, and anchors many an analysis. Openly available code for cloud infrastructure or networking is challenging the hold of the tech world’s giants. Everywhere you look, ‘incumbents’ are apparently being ‘challenged’ and ‘disrupted’ by the power of open.

The truth, of course, is a little more complex and a lot more nuanced, as business models shift and evolve just like they always have. In sustainable systems, some people still need to be rewarded (often through being paid) for their effort. And in sustainable systems, paying someone can often be a pretty straightforward means of ensuring that you have a throat to choke if something breaks; big companies adopting open source often seek a proper financial relationship with someone who installs and maintains the ‘free’ software or hardware they’re depending upon.

One area of openness that I’ve been involved with for about ten years is that of open licensing for both creative works and data. And it’s come a very long way.

Here in Europe, for example, the (badly flawed) 2003 Public Sector Information Directive is under review, and there’s every likelihood that the replacement will make a number of sensible moves toward greater openness, transparency, and reusability for publicly funded data. As the EPSI Platform site notes today, Andrés Nin proposes going a step further than the European Commission is currently contemplating, by instituting a common open license across Europe;

“The creation of a single public information re-use space in Europe requires much more, it requires a common European OpenData license applicable to all data generated by European public administrations.”

I would certainly welcome a model license that European member states might be enabled to use. I’d also welcome — and support — vigorous efforts to dissuade individual member states or ministries from their usual practice of tweaking and otherwise modifying perfectly good documents in order to demonstrate how ‘special’ or ‘different’ their circumstances apparently are. When will they all realise that they are neither as special nor as different as they like to think?

But — and it’s a big but — it seems unwise, premature, and unhelpful to even begin to suggest that such a license might be mandated across Europe. It isn’t required, and attempts to develop a single document that everyone could accept would be an unhelpful distraction that would result in something so bureaucratic, so ringed in opt-outs and prevarications, as to be utterly worthless. It would also, in all likelihood, be one of those exercises in which the process very quickly subsumed the point. A prime candidate for, in the words of an old boss, being too busy to be effective.