Hacking PubChem: Free Speech or Free Beer?

September 27, 2006

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NCBI(PubChem) Copyright Disclaimer

Open Source licensing is nothing short of revolutionary. Of all of the things an Open Source license makes possible, perhaps the most far-reaching is the right of licensees to create and distribute derivative works. This is what separates "software that's free" ("free as in beer") from "Free Software" ("free as in speech"). A licensee that is not free to create and distribute derivative works has virtually no incentive to build on what the original creator has given away. Would you contribute your valuable time to improving something that you knew you could never use as you saw fit? This may sound like semantic hair-splitting, but it's far from it. None of the phenomenal progress made in Open Source software would have been possible without the basic rights to create and distribute derivative works.

PubChem's Copyright Disclaimer should give anyone familiar with Open Source licensing grounds to ponder. Apparently, NIH is telling its users that it doesn't have the authority to grant them the right to copy all PubChem content or distribute derivative works. But what parts of PubChem can these rights be granted for, if any? What parts of Pubchem are copyrighted, and therefore owned, by contributors? How can a user find out which parts of PubChem are subject to copyright claims by contributors?

It isn't too difficult to imagine a scenario in which PubChem requires those depositing data to agree to a copyright waiver. This waiver would simply grant PubChem users the sublicensable right to copy a depositor's content verbatim and to distribute derivative works based on it, royalty-free. The depositor would still retain any copyright they might want to assert outside of PubChem. If the depositor doesn't own these rights, or isn't willing to part with them, then that content would be rejected. This has been done for years in Open Source software projects and is being done increasingly with Creative Commons licenses for non-software intellectual property. Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses, and my aim is not to advocate either one. The point is simply that the idea is not new.

Maybe a copyright waiver isn't feasible. Regardless, PubChem could create a mechanism whereby content for which a contributor is asserting copyright claims can be identified as such and optionally avoided by its users.

While I'd never turn down free beer, and I'd always thank those offering, in the long run free speech is far more sustaining.