creative commons

I don’t post to this blog as much as I used to, but every once in a while there are some developments in the world of data sharing and scholarly communications that I think worthwhile discussing with respect to archaeology. This blog post is an attempt to gather my thoughts on the issue of Open Access in advance of a forum on the subject that will be held at the Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) annual meeting in Honolulu in April.

Yesterday, I learned that Aaron Swartz committed suicide at age 26. Aaron Swartz was active and prominent in many “open knowledge” efforts.  I had no real personal connection with him, and only remember meeting him once at a party thrown by Creative Commons in 2006 or so. I had no idea he was so young. His tragic death is reverberating around a community of activists that value sharing of knowledge and a free and open internet.

What does all this have to do with archaeology?

The story of Swartz’s death involves JSTOR. Most archaeologists have some familiarity with JSTOR, the online journal repository. JSTOR was originally funded by the Mellon Foundation. In some ways it is a resounding success, as it serves many, many scholars worldwide, including many archaeologists. Unlike many digital scholarly communications initiatives, JSTOR is also financially “sustainable.” It is held up as a model for how to do digital scholarship right. It serves a large community and does not have to come back year after year begging for more grant money. JSTOR’s revenues come largely from subscriptions. If you don’t have an affiliation with a subscribing institution to JSTOR, you don’t get access to the vast majority of its resources. In other words, JSTOR sustains itself by setting up a “pay wall.”  That pay wall blocks some 150 million attempts to access JSTOR every year.

Here’s where this ties back to Aaron Swartz. Swartz was caught attempting a mass download of some 4.8 million articles from the JSTOR repository via MIT’s network. To JSTOR’s great credit, it did not pursue charges against Swartz. However, MIT and the US Dept of Justice come out looking far worse. US prosecutors charged Swartz with criminal hacking, and he faced 35(!) years in federal prison. Essentially, US prosecutors charged Swartz with terrorism (see Lessig’s excellent account), all for downloading academic articles in a manner that did not damage MIT’s network or JSTOR (see this expert witness). According to Swartz’s family, this legal hounding directly (and understandably) motivated his suicide.

This is obviously a tragic case, and another sad example of routine abuse of the legal system with regard to intellectual property and computer crime. JSTOR did not want to threaten Swartz with 35 years of prison for downloading articles. But, in the end, that did not matter. He still faced a draconian prison term, roughly equivalent to the punishment for 2nd degree murder, because he violated network rules and barriers JSTOR put into place around research materials.

And that’s the crux of the problem, and why Open Access is  one of the key ethical issues now faced by archaeology. Pay walls and intellectual property barriers carry real, and clearly very oppressive, legal force. I doubt, the SAA, the Archaeological Institute for America (AIA), or the American Anthropological Association (AAA) would want to press for felony charges or long prison terms if someone illegally downloaded a journal article from one of their servers. Nevertheless, Swartz’s case demonstrates that such barriers clearly carry dire legal implications.

There are many excellent reasons to promote Open Access in archaeology, summarized in this recent issue of World Archaeology dedicated to the subject. But the Swartz case helps to highlight another. Professional society reluctance (in the case of the SAA) or outright opposition against Open Access (AIA, AAA) puts many researchers at risk. Many researchers, particularly our colleagues in public, CRM, and contract archaeology or our colleagues struggling as adjunct faculty, either totally lack or regularly lose affiliations with institutions that subscribe to pay-wall resources like JSTOR. Many of these people beg logins from their friends and colleagues lucky enough to have access. Similarly, file-sharing of copyright protected articles is routine. Email lists and other networks regularly see circulation of papers, all under legally dubious circumstances. Essentially, we have a (nearly?) criminalized underclass of researchers who bend and break rules in order to participate in their professional community. It is a perverse travesty that we’ve relegated essential professional communications to an quasi-legal/illegal underground, when we’re supposedly a community dedicated to advancing the public good through the creation of knowledge about the past.

We have to remember, we, as a discipline work in the public interest. Public funding directly (grants) or indirectly (heritage management laws) supports, permits, and regulates our efforts. Doesn’t it make more sense to remove barriers to scholarship and remove harsh legal threats to sharing research?

Of course, many would say this is utopian and not financially sustainable, and that the only way to finance high-quality publication in archaeology is through pay walls and the commoditization of our discipline’s intellectual property. But commoditization has its costs. We have a model for totally privatized and commoditized archaeology that is “financially sustainable” in that it does not require any input of public or philanthropic funding. It’s called the antiquities trade. And it is ugly and destructive.

It’s time we also start seeing the ugliness in the current dissemination status quo, where the information outputs of archaeology become privatized, commoditized, intellectual property. This status quo carries the baggage of a legally oppressive system of copyright control, surveillance, and draconian punishments. Rather than dismissing Open Access off-hand, we have an ethical obligation to at least try to find financially sustainable modes of Open Access publication (see Lake 2012,  Kansa 2012 [pay-wall][open-access pre-print]).

Swartz’s tragic case demonstrates that some models of financial sustainability are not worth the cost.


Thanks for all the retweets, comments, and discussion. Please constantly pressure professional societies, universities, an government to make research dissemination more just. Also, I was wrong about the severity of Swartz’s threatened punishment. It would have been better for him to have been accused of murder, selling slaves, or helping terrorists build a nuclear bomb.  A complete travesty of justice that taints Academia.

(Cross posted on Heritage Bytes)

We’re delighted to announce that Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration is now available via the University of California’s eScholarship repository, at the following link: 

This book explores the social use and context of the World Wide Web within the discipline of archaeology.  While the Web has radically altered journalism, commerce, media and social relationships, its sees very uneven adoption in professional scholarly contexts. Case studies discussed in this book help illuminate patterns of adoption and resistance to new forms of scholarly communication and data sharing. These case studies explore social media, digital preservation, and cultural representation concerns, as well as technical and semantic challenges and approaches toward data interoperability. Contributors to this volume debate the merits and sustainability of open access publishing and how the Web mediates interactions between professional and nonprofessional communities engaged in archaeology.


Archaeology 2.0 is the first book in the Cotsen Institute’s new Digital Archaeology Series ( The editors want to thank all of the book’s contributors, and also the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, especially Julie Nemer, Carol Leyba, and Willeke Wendrich. The printed version will be available for purchase shortly.

The Brooklyn Museum continues to push the envelope:

“When it comes to progressive, public-friendly copyright policies, few art museums can match The Brooklyn Museum. In 2004, it was the first art museum to adopt a Creative Commons license, allowing any non-commercial copying of any image in which the museum holds the copyright. In 2008, it was the third institution to join the Flickr Commons, making available high-resolution images of Public Domain artworks from its collection. Last week, the musuem published the detailed copyright status of every image in its online collection–that’s over 12,000 artworks–and made this information available through its API so that anyone can easily cross-reference the data with their own copyright research. It also switched to a less restrictive Creative Commons license, allowing non-commercial remixing as well.” (Jonathan Melber in The Huffington Post).

The museum possesses many archaeological artifacts from the Middle East, Latin America, etc. Here’s an example:

Bahía. Seated Figure, 500 B.C.E.- 500 C.E. Clay, post-fire pigment, 17 3/4 x 13 1/4 x 8 1/4 in. (45.1 x 33.7 x 21.0 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Tessim Zorach, 88.57.7. Creative Commons-BY-NC

Bahía. Seated Figure, 500 B.C.E.- 500 C.E. Clay, post-fire pigment, 17 3/4 x 13 1/4 x 8 1/4 in. (45.1 x 33.7 x 21.0 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Tessim Zorach, 88.57.7. Creative Commons-BY-NC

Just stumbled across an interesting website called Archaeopix. “Archaeopix is a website associated with the Archaeology Group at Flickr. It picks photos from the pool which are available under a Creative Commons licence. This means at the very least they can be reproduced for non-commercial purposes. For more details about the licence for this image, please visit this page. For more information about this site visit this page.”

Wow! Here’s an interesting signal coming from the incoming Obama Administration. “” is now carrying a Creative Commons copyright license. According to the copyright policy on, they are using the Creative Commons attribution license. That’s the most open license Creative Commons offers, and is a great signal that at least some officials in the new Administration “get” the value of greater openness and freedom to use and reuse information. I hope this is a sign of greater sanity on issues such as defense of the public domain, transparency in government, the importance of fair use, and the need for greater openness in publicly financed scholarly and research communications.

Hat tip to my friend and colleague Jason Schultz over at the Samuelson Technology Law Clinic.

Update: The blog has a post describing the reasoning behind adopting the Creative Commons license. Interesting that they are highlighting a comment made by Lessig. It does indicate that the Obama team has some familiarity with the “Access to Knowledge” movement, its thinkers, and goals. A good sign!

It’s been a long time since I’ve had much of an opportunity to blog, or digest many of the important developments that have been taking place in the world of open access and open science.

First off, I had the pleasure of attending the Creative Commons 5th anniversary party. Besides enjoying myself, it was a great chance to reflect on how far Creative Commons has come. Millions of people and sites using their licenses, important projects in Science and Education, and continuing and growing buzz and energy.

Creative Commons made some recent announcements at the party and after that are important for archaeologists and for our planning for cyber-infrastructure. Here’s an update:

(1) CC-Zero: CC-Zero is a new protocol that lets people assert that content has no legal restrictions associated with it, or lets them sign a waiver removing all rights associated with a work. It is similar to a public domain dedication, but (in the words of Creative Commons) “The key addition is that the assertion that content is in the public domain will be vouched for by users, so that there is a platform for reputation systems to develop. People will then be able to judge the reliability of content’s copyright status based on who has done the certifying.” In other words, this seems like a way of trying to get encourage certainty that an item of content really IS in the public domain.

(2) Community Norms: One of the interesting recent developments out of Creative Commons (especially Science Commons) is the growing emphasis on relying on social norms (see this link). Social norms are an important force in science (and the humanities), and many researchers probably mistake the social norms of their fields with copyright or other legal protections. For example, archaeologists (and other researchers) have been publishing non-copyrightable facts for a long time, these include counts of species, dimensions of artifacts, etc. You’re still expected to cite the people who published these facts, even though the facts are in the public domain. This is an example of a powerful and good social norm.

(3) Open Data Protocol: Here’s where everything above comes together. The new Science Commons “Open Data Protocol” discusses the issues of copyright, factual (non copyrightable) data, interoperability, attribution, and community norms. It is an impressive and needed document, and makes a very clear and compelling case for moving away from the traditional Creative Commons approach of leveraging copyright licenses to encourage (or mandate) good behavior such as citation and attribution.

Scientific data repositories are typically full of content that is both “expressive” (subject to copyright) and “factual” (not subject to copyright). Data sources are also highly global, and therefore subject to all sorts of legal jurisdictions and rules. Because of all of these legal complexities, it becomes very difficult to achieve legal interoperability between data from different data repositories (that may have different terms of use, license frameworks, or may be subject to different legal systems). This case is clearly made in their document.

The solution that Science Commons advocates is to essentially move all open science data repositories to a common legal baseline, which is basically the public domain. This is very different to the “traditional” (if one can speak of traditional in the context of a 5 year old organization) Creative Commons approach of “some rights reserved” copyright licensing. Science Commons argues against licensing or other legal instruments to mandate “good” behavior (such as citation and attribution) of data resources, because these seem legal unworkable and have many practical problems. Instead, citation and acknowledgments of data contributions should be the province of social norms, and not legally enforced. Scientific data repositories that want to be “open” should shape their terms of use, copyright, and other policies so their content is essentially public domain and freely remixable with other resources.

Comments: Wow! This Science Commons development is very impressive, and very compelling.

Unfortunately, I think it’s very likely to freak out a large portion of the archaeological community. Science Commons is simply so far ahead of our community, that I worry about how this will be received.

I just gave a paper at the recent American Schools of Oriental Research meeting in San Diego. I presented our recent work with Prof. Martha Joukowsky to publish 15 years of her excavations at the Great Temple of Petra (see here, and here) in Open Context. This content is licensed with the Creative Commons Attribution license, the most open of their licensing choices. This was very generous and forward looking of Prof. Joukowsky.

To illustrate how far we have to go to advocate “openness”, in the Q&A part of my talk, someone in the audience advocated legally registering the copyright of archaeological content. That way, one could sue for damages in infringement. Ugh, so the discussion turned from how to share our data to how to sue each other for copyright infringement. Given some of the audience reaction to the discussion, it seems very clear that in Near Eastern archaeology, there is very little faith in “social norms”. A good fraction of my audience seemed to believe that their community was so dysfunctional that they needed legal protections.

Thus, while I a agree with the arguments in Open Data Protocol, I believe a large portion of the archaeological community has a long way to go. It will take many more examples of datasets like Petra to move this community from secrecy and suspicion. Sigh, we truly have our work cut out for us.

Update: Peter Suber (as always) has excellent commentary on these developments.

A brief note. I’ve recently joined the UC Berkeley School of Information and now run the Information and Service Design Program (warning: web-site is a draft!). It is an exciting place and tremendously challenging, but offers some wonderful opportunities to learn much and expand efforts toward better data sharing and communication in archaeology. I’ll be blogging more as I learn more about good “service” design and technologies and organizational.

I also recently wrote a short article for iCommons, an international access to knowledge organization affiliated with Creative Commons. The article is about traditional knowledge and the Access to Knowledge movement. It looks at the clash of viewpoints between some indigenous peoples intellectual property rights advocates and advocates of the Digital Commons. But it also looks at how these interests can find some common ground on issues of education, development, and activism, especially when it comes to free and open source software and community building tools.

Now that I have all these new “I” organizations in my life (I School, iCommons), I feel that maybe it’s time for an iPhone, to start exploring mobile and location based services (see discussion by my colleague, Erik Wilde) and to put another “I” in my life. Unfortunately the iPhone comes with i-crappy contract restrictions and costs lots of i-money.

So, I’m looking eagerly forward to this new gizmo, Open Moko, as a very capable alternative. It’s a wholly open mobile communications platform. Seems like it could be incredibly useful for archaeologists in the field, sending up observations in real time.

I’m at the iCommons iSummit and will be blogging periodically about it.

I just a saw a clip of “Star Wreck“, a Finnish science fiction movie made for something like $20,000. The movie is available for free download and has been since pirated(!) in Russia and China. According to the producers, the piracy and free download helped spread a buzz about the movie, and it has got the attention of major studios and distributors. They made 20X more money by giving it away.

What a model for the future of scholarly publishing.