Monday, April 7, 2008

Information wants to be free

Some Pantone Universe products. Pantone Universe is a brand of everyday items featured in Pantone colors.Pantone colored products,
Image from Commons

So what is the nature of a copyright? What can be protected and what cannot? Consider Pantone... The Pantone Matching System is a proprietary color space used for specifying pigments and colors precisely. Pantone holds that the numbers given to particular shades are "intellectual property" and cannot be reproduced without permission.

So if you want to discuss colors using the Pantone scheme, you have to comply with the requirements. There are many examples elsewhere.

Consider chemical compounds. The nomenclature is very confusing, since there is such a great profusion of them, discovered by many many researchers over several centuries in many countries. Not having a standard will impede progress. The Chemical Abstracts Service, part of the ACS, provides standardized compound identification and nomenclature. But the ACS doesn't want Wikipedia using CAS Registry Numbers for licensing reasons as discussed here. The basic argument is that

"SciFinder and STN are provided to researchers under formal license agreements, under which the researchers agree to refrain from using these tools to build databases"

and that Wikipedia is a kind of database.
Chemical Abstracts Service headquarters in Columbus. Self made photo.CAS Headquarters,
Image from Commons

But, and this is a bigger problem here than it is with colors, these numbers are very standard. You'll find them in many contexts in academia and industry and you can't practically escape their use. Since chemical compounds are a sometime matter of life and death (few people have died from getting slightly the wrong shade of pink, but many have died from getting the wrong drug) standardization theoretically is a good thing to avoid confusion.

Wikipedia has a giant disclaimer that it's not to be relied upon, use at your own risk, etc... but people do rely on it anyway. So not being able to use these numbers will be a great hindrance

But there's hope, in this particular case, the ACS appears to be relenting. See the discussion at the WikiProject for Chemistry ... (as well as in the blogosphere) It now appears that the ACS has reversed position and will work with the project to enable accurate use of information.

Maybe it all will work out in the end. But I wonder if there are general principles to be had here. Is it possible to work with organizations that have proprietary, but vital, information and get to a good outcome in most cases? Have you seen this in other fields?

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