This is a cross-post from an article I wrote for iCommons.org.
The Social Web (aka Web 2.0) is about three things: listening, conversing and sharing. Of the three, sharing is perhaps the most relevant in the context of the Commons in part because it is about sharing content, something that is almost taken for granted these days. Anyone who is active on the Social Web is familiar with a myriad content sharing sites ranging from Flickr (photo sharing) to Vimeo and YouTube (video sharing) to docstoc (document sharing). Everywhere we look we see examples of people sharing their and other people’s content and we almost take it as a given that we can take from one site and share it on our own or that other people can do likewise with our own content.
To a large extent this issue is already being addressed by a few services that enable users to licence their content under a free content license such as Creative Commons. An increasing number of blogs are also licensed under one of the Creative Commons licenses even if the bloggers concerned still assert “all rights reserved” (which only confuses matters). Basically what happens is that these bloggers have a Creative Commons badge which grants certain rights and then also state that all their rights are reserved instead of the more appropriate “some rights reserved” statement. That being said, there does seem to be a greater awareness of alternative content licensing options although there is still a degree of uncertainty as to precisely what an open content licence is and how it all works. An important missing step is establishing a link in people’s minds between fulfilling their desire to share their content and the most appropriate legal mechanism to achieve this. In other words, educating users of the Social Web how to licence their content in a way that fits with their intentions. Instances where content creators apply unsuitable licenses to their content tend to undermine the public perception of those licenses and devalue the work done by organisations like iCommons to promote more flexible content licensing options.
The emergence of lifestreams and microblogging has brought a number of interesting challenges when it comes to sharing content either in short form (in the case of so-called microblogs like Twitter) or where content is aggregated from multiple sources (in the case of lifestreaming services). As many people know, Twitter is a short form microblogging service that is intended to answer the question “What are you doing?” in 140 characters or less. It has evolved into a massive, unstructured chat service and blogging platform and yet there is no apparent effort to give users the option of licensing their content using an alternative licensing model to default copyright. It may seem like a trivial issue when you take into account that posts on Twitter are 140 characters or less but there are some Twitter users who post some pretty compelling content despite those constraints and given the sheer volume of “tweets” over a period of time, that can comprise a fairly substantial body of content. In this context it isn’t difficult to see value in being able to licence a Twitter stream under a free content licence, bearing in mind that tweets have fixed web addresses and can be easily referenced.
Lifestreams beg a similar question. A good example of a lifestream service is FriendFeed which has risen to prominence recently. There are a number of other examples and these include Jaiku, Plaxo Pulse and Social Thing!. These services enable you to insert content streams from the likes of Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and a host of other content sharing services or sources you may use and then aggregate those streams into a single lifestream which notionally represents your online life as a whole. The same challenges facing Twitter apply here too. The fact that different content streams with different content licenses applied to the content begs the question how the resultant stream should be licensed? For example, my Flickr photos are licensed under a BY-SA 2.0 licence and my blog may be licensed under a BY 3.0 licence. The scenario could become more complicated where the various licenses may not be conducive to some sort of peaceful mashup (for example, one piece of content may have a non commercial element and another could be a simple attribution licence). The challenge then becomes how to licence the aggregated stream especially where content may be available in the stream in degrees of completeness (a Twitter stream on its own may be licensed using one licence and yet when it is reproduced as a whole in a lifestream it may be subject to a very different licence due to the combination of that stream with other content types). As I said, it can be a pretty complicated and convoluted challenge but then sharing on the Social Web isn’t quite as simple as it seems.
One solution is to enable users to carry their specific licenses through from the source of that content (Flickr, Vimeo and the others) through their feeds into their lifestreaming service which would ideally pick up on the applicable license and publicise that license in the resulting lifestream. Of course this would mean that more and more online content sharing sites would need to support Creative Commons and similar free content licenses in the first place but this would resolve the issue of licensing the content and then preserving those licenses down the line.