I feel we have an obligation to re-use. The best way to keep things from humanity’s pool of cultural artefacts and knowledge available is by re-using and remixing them.

Most of my work is in ensuring more material becomes available for everyone to use. Such as open government data to enable socio-economic impact, with my company, or to allow for more democratic control in my role as chairman of the Open State Foundation. Such as creative output, in the form of images, text and music, in my role as board member of Open Nederland, the member organisation of the Dutch Creative Commons Chapter.

There already is a plethora of material available under open licenses. And while my work is all about adding to that pile and encouraging others to make good use of that, I find that personally I could be more active to re-use the cornucopia of human cultural expression and knowledge that is out there. In this blog I often re-use Creative Commons licensed images from others, and started adding images to my weekly reviews with that specific intent. But I could be much more aware of the opportunities re-usable cultural artefacts allow.

Last May, Elmine’s birthday gift to me was a set of 5 A3 sized photo frames, to fill up the mostly empty white walls of my home office. For months I didn’t get to actually selecting images to put in those frames. Browsed through the 25k of images I have on Flickr myself but couldn’t choose. Then I started playing with some existing images in the public domain or released with an open license, developed some ideas, but still couldn’t choose. Elmine broke the deadlock last week when she suggested to treat them as temporary objects. It isn’t about choosing the perfect images for my walls, it’s about choosing a few good-enough ones that speak to me at this moment in time. Our A3 printer will patiently spit out new images if I so choose.

So yesterday I decided on 5 images. Today Elmine helped me prepare the images for printing, as she has all the right software tools for it, and I don’t. And now they’re on the wall, joining two images already there.

Here are the images and their background as open cultural artefacts.

The eastern wall presents three images. The leftmost one was already there, a photo of me drinking coffee in Lucca, Tuscany in the summer of 2015. A month of healing with the two of us in a year of personal losses. Elmine took this picture and she publishes most of her pictures with a Creative Commons license that allows non-commercial re-use. In general Flickr is a resource to find great images with an open license.

In the middle is the most famous footprint not on this earth. It’s the imprint of Buzz Aldrin’s boot on the moon surface, taken during Apollo 11 in July 1969. NASA has published and is publishing a wide range of images of all their missions, all freely re-usable. This includes the set of Apollo 11 images, with this footprint. I selected this because it shows how even the most amazing human endeavour ultimately is a sequence of single steps.

On the right is a remix of two images. The first image shows our city’s water-gate, Koppelpoort (1425) around 1640. The image is an illustration made by A. Rademaker for a book dated 1727-1733. The Amsterdam Rijksmuseum is putting tremendous effort in digitising all the artefacts in their collection at high resolution and making those images available for free re-use. They also organise design competitions to stimulate people to come up with novel forms of re-use of the art works in their collection. As an overlay I added the iconic primary colored planes of a Mondriaan painting. Piet Mondriaan was born in our city, where his childhood home is now a museum of his work. As Mondriaan died in 1944, his work entered the public domain in 2015 and is freely re-usable. The image thus combines the medieval and modern history of Amersfoort.

Those primary colors are continued in the images on the southern wall of my office, the one my desk is facing.

On the left is an adapted page of Lego’s US patent. Patents are public documents (you get commercial protection for your invention in exchange for publishing how it works and thus adding to the world’s pool of knowledge). Patent offices publish patents and Google makes them searchable. So you can search for your favourite invention, whether it’s a Lego brick, a moonlander, a pepper grinder or Apple’s original iPod interface, and take a page from the patent to hang on your wall. Elmine added primary colors to the bricks in the patent illustration on my request.

In the middle is the photo I took last week visiting the Groninger Museum, with both E and Y in front of a giant head in primary colors, in the Alessandro Mendini exhibit. The image is available under a Creative Commons license (for non-commercial and equally shared re-use).

The rightmost photo was already there, a beautiful gift from Cees Elzenga, a photographer and photo journalist, who was our neighbour in Enschede. It is a photo in the rain, at night, near Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, and it strongly evokes the gloom I encountered visiting the still divided city in the second half of the ’80s. This is the one image on the wall that is not openly licensed.

One image is still missing, as I loaned one of the photo frames Elmine gave me to Y temporarily, until her own pin-board arrives in a few days. She uses it for two photos her grandmother sent her, after visiting the Unseen photo exhibit in Amsterdam with her. When it returns I will use the final frame for another NASA image, that of an ‘earth rise’ on the moon, similar to what I use as a background image on my Mastodon (and Twitter) profile page.

As my friend Peter says, we have an obligation to explain. So others may follow in our footsteps of tinkering and creating.

I feel we also have an obligation to re-use. The best way to keep things from humanity’s pool of cultural artefacts and knowledge available is by re-using and remixing them. What gets used keeps meaning and value, will not be forgotten. My office walls now make a tiny contribution to that.

In the past week a report was published by the University of Strasbourg and APIE on charging policies for government data re-use. Its conclusion was that charging for commercial re-use of government data can make sense if the price point reflects the government costs made, and lies below the price private companies are willing to pay.

For two specific reasons I cannot share the conclusion of the mentioned study: first the way value-added is defined as the effort government put into making data available and re-usable, and second using the data-information-knowledge ladder as a yard stick for that added value, even though using such a ladder is fundamentally flawed, as it implies a causality and hierarchy that in reality isn’t there.

Below however I list a few reasons why I have difficulty in general with charging for government data, and making distinctions between non-commercial and commercial re-use. I posted them to the OKFN mailing list (see the entire discussion there), but post them here so I can easily retrieve them later.

The question ‘isn’t it reasonable to charge for commercial re-use of data?’ is simple to ask, but has no simple answer. The answer is the sum of a number of arguments that together must be weighed against that single question.
Some of those arguments would be in my perception:

The customer always pays, and therefore we all pay twice.
Any company will charge the costs of data they bought in the price of their product, so the customer pays. However all customers already paid for the data generation through taxes. Unless the revenue goes directly to cut taxes for all, citizens are actually paying twice. As are the owners of the companies involved (they are after all also citizens). Charging for data hence becomes a ‘data-tax’.

Setting a price has consequences if it’s based on the perceived market-value
This way of price setting will always be according to what one sees happening now in established markets. You are then damaging innovation efforts as any price creates a threshold for novel ways of doing things. Innovation is really not about merely a novel product, it is also about novel costing-structures, novel distribution channels, and novel customer groups (the ones that cannot be served by the incumbent costing structures and distribution channels) Setting a price on perceived market value therefore helps incumbents in the re-use niche involved, and impedes new entrants, as it assumes that innovation apart form the product does not change other aspects of the playing field. Government is then basically saying: under this price threshold nothing much can happen, in fact we are making it actively impossible as we set that minimum cap. Setting a fixed price this way creates a minimum threshold (which is also assymetrically favouring those companies that can afford it better and thus a market intervention), setting a relative price is effectively an additional revenue-tax for the companies involved. This way of pricing also turns the government into a market party/player.

Setting a price has consequences if it’s based on incurred costs (other than incremental costs of distribution)
What are the costs of getting data and getting it ready for release? Is collection part of it? Is putting it on-line part of it? Even if it’s in the same format you collected it in? There are no separate systems or processes for it, the datasets are a result of the entire system of government executing its tasks which are paid through our taxes. And are you charging all of those costs to commercial re-users? Also to pay for non-commercial re-use, which is basically party of gov’s requirement to actively inform the citizenry about its ongoing tasks?
Also, there are positive effects for data release to the internal workings of government itself (transparency, participation etc., as well as higher effectiveness and efficiency in their own tasks). Are you going to account for that off-set first in determining the costs of the data-sets? If you cannot clearly demarcate the costs, you are in fact charging for what you think others will be willing to pay (see item above). I have a feeling that isolating specific costs will bring you to a load of trivial costs, ending at the conclusion “let’s charge incremental distribution costs”. Anything above that will be again a wholly arbitrary price setting. Government is not supposed to be acting arbitrarily but predictably and controllable.

Innovation is not non-commercial
Thinking that innovation happens as research, analysis etc, and then after a while magically becomes a commercially viable product, is far from reality. Innovation happens not in the lab (new knowledge can happen in the lab, but innovation and new knowledge are not synonymous) but in experimenting in the market. Innovation is a trajectory, a path of exploration, repeated ‘life’ attempts at getting a still changing and developing product to take a market foothold, not an incident of something shooting out of a lab. Therefore it cannot be argued that when you charge for commercial re-use, you are not impeding innovation as that ‘can take place as non-commercial re-use’. Innovation includes successful market-entry and commercial success. Thus the non-commercial / commercial distinction will indeed have an effect on possible innovation.

Collecting revenue is not cheap
Collecting revenue costs a lot of money. If you charge at the level of ‘production costs’ for commercial re-use, government incurs a lot of new costs: Administrating billing, monitoring and actively policing of commercial re-use (to make sure nobody gets a freebie and make sure all commercial re-users are treated equally)
This will either cost more than the revenue collected, or it will drive up prices for the data-sets to effectively preclude a larger part of potential commercial use of said data, raising the threshold more towards the high end of any re-use market and excluding not just new entrants but also the smaller incumbents in a market, again constituting market intervention for the sake of monetizing a single transaction.
Commercial re-use may save government costs
Commercial use may in fact make gov’s work lighter,with e.g. products in the area of having informed citizens making better decisions about their own lives, and thus make less demand of other government services.

Who will set the price?
Who is actually mandated to set a price for commercial re-use on any given dataset? How do we know it is fairly/reasonably calculated? Where are the checks and balances for those decisions? If any gov institution sets its own price (now the case it seems) you create a confusing and unpredictable landscape. Unpredictability in resources is not something companies take lightly: they will move away from that, and stop using the data. At the same time this might be the real revenue opportunity: charge not for the data, but for the service level companies want to have on top of what a gov does as part of its own tasks. Data with no strings attached, and SLAs with a price tag.
If all gov institutions adhere to the same price setting process, this probably needs legislation first as well. Is there currently a legal basis other than the phrase in the PSI directive (costs plus reasonable profit margin, which applies to all re-use, not just commercial) for pricing?

All in all, charging for commercial use of data is only interesting it seems to me if you stick to looking at only the basic transaction, not at the chain or ecosystem that transaction is part of. If you look further than just the transaction, as I am sure we must, you are for all intents and purposes raising a data-tax and doing market interventions if government starts monetizing commercial re-use. That may be a government goal, just as it may be it wants to keep people from using data, using money to influence behaviour (like rising tobacco taxes) or it may be it really wants to get some short term revenue at the cost of less innovation, higher taxation. Neither of those however is the stated goal of any government at this point when it comes to data re-use.