Contribution, ownership, and natural versus artificial community

Share Your OPML (SYO) is a service whose mission is "to gather a community of subscription lists, in OPML format, and aggregate them in interesting ways." A while ago I asked:

Now that we've shared our OPML, will SYO share it back so we can create and contribute our own data mashups?
A number of questions lurked behind that one:

  1. Can I license my reading list, for example using one of the Creative Commons licenses? From one perspective, that list is just data and therefore not subject to copyright. But from another perspective, that list is a creative work. It uniquely reflects my own engagement with the blogosphere, and embodies much careful selection and refinement.
  2. If I do license my reading list, and then I contribute it to a service like SYO, how is its use of my list affected by my license?
  3. On what basis might SYO in turn license its aggregation of my list and others? Mechanical aggregation isn't a creative act, but the formation of a unique community of contributors arguably is.
  4. Can SYO then license the collective output of those contributors back to me and to others?
  5. If I in turn build upon that collective output, how am I affected by its license?

SYO is just one of a many kinds of services that will raise these kinds of questions. Video-sharing sites are another. Clearly you can assign a Creative Commons license to a video that you create. And as's Mike Hudack mentions in our interview, his service commendably weaves support for Creative Commons licensing right into its workflow.

It's not at all clear, though, whether the tags, the ratings, the commentary, or the playlists that you create when you interact with these services can be licensed, and if so by whom. The individual contributors? The service? Both?

I presume there is no longer any argument about data export. If I contribute to blip or mefeedia or dabble, I'll expect to be able to easily get out what I put in -- or else I'll go somewhere that does ensure simple, high-fidelity export.

But I also want to extract and creatively reuse the amalgam of my contributions and other people's contributions, within and across these services. That's much trickier. The essential creative act performed by these services is, again, the creation of a community of contributors. How these services respect the creative rights of their contributors, while at the same time asserting their own creative rights, is a thorny question indeed.

In my conversation with Mike Hudack, I sketched a model for online community that I think may help clarify the situation. Services like SYO or blip or Flickr or aren't really communities at all, in the natural sense of the word. They're just services. The organizing principle of each is a data type: OPML files, videos, photos, URLs. Overlaid on top of each, implicitly or explicitly, are natural communities aligned by interest and/or location.

We are all members of many of these communities. Each will need to balance individual and collective ownership in its own unique way. There will be many different solutions to that puzzle, but we won't find them until we stop defining communities primarily by data type and start defining them by where people live -- in real and virtual spaces -- and what they do there.

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