There was a mantra in the IT community in the late 1990s and early 2000s that went like this: “Data Should Be Free.” The thought was that we should unlock the value of data by removing restrictions such as copyrights and intellectual property rights. If barriers such as this could be removed, then we could create new and useful ways of combining information to make our lives better. This movement spawned organizations such as Creative Commons, the Free Software Foundation, and Project Gutenberg. While I generally applaud these efforts and have benefitted from several of these projects, I think there is a fine line between freeing data and respecting property rights.
Data, or information, is quickly becoming a product in and of itself. It is now traded, sold, and reconfigured to create a differentiator for a company or organization. The argument for free data is that people can create derived works based on the original data and these can be used to enhance understanding or to create a whole new product. Think mash-ups.
A recent article titled “Playing With Maps” spurred my thinking in this area. The author cites the dilemma of trying to find playgrounds in Toronto. Since playgrounds are not businesses they do not pay to be added to Google Maps and therefore do not show up on a cursory search. The author was trying to find a source of geospatial coordinates that already tagged playgrounds that could then be mapped. This is an excellent example of how free data could be derived and used to build new functionality.
The entire open source movement sprung from this notion that data should be free. It has spawned entire operating systems and applications such as Linux and any of the Mozilla products such as Firefox. In fact, Mozilla’s tagline is “Doing Good Is Part Of Our Code”. BUT, here is the dilemma: many of the coders that create Linux variations, Mozilla products, or any number of open source products are doing so on their off hours. Their working hours are often spent coding commercial products that are bought and sold. In other words, a company with proprietary and protected code that is sold for financial gain is paying for the services of a coder and is allowing that coder to create open source or free products on their off time. A symbiosis has to exist between companies that are selling “not-so-free” data and coders that wish that all data and all applications were free.
I believe that there is a time and place for free data and free applications but they must coexist with applications and information that are protected by copyright laws and sold commercially. It is those commercial products that in part allow the free versions to come to market. Do you have a particular open source application that you use? Tell me your favorite. Do you believe that all data should be free? Let me know your thoughts.
About Kelly Brown
Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT topics that keep him up at night.