What counts as public these days?

One of the mailing lists I subscribe to burst into life this afternoon with many posters taking umbrage that an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement had apparently taken a discussion and (more or less) republished it as an article. The list in question was not really a private list, although it had certainly been created for and aimed at the academic community and some participants may have regarded it as private. Many of the contributors were complaining that their moral rights as authors had been impugned. I’m not really bothered about the rights and wrongs of this particular issue (at least not as bothered as some of the posters seemed to be) and I don’t want to get sidetracked, so I’m not giving details but I think the debate raises some interesting issues.

Firstly there is the matter of what we do on the Internet. I think it’s probably naive to expect journalists to ignore a public source in the search for an interesting story, and if you really don’t want your words re-used you shouldn’t post them on a public forum. (That said, I’d much rather journalists went out and found real stories rather than sat at their desk rehashing press releases and Internet debates. It would make newspapers much more interesting!)

Secondly this brings up the issue of open access/open source again. I don’t think there is likely to be much commercial value in a post on a discussion forum, or for that matter a blog post, so I’d argue for a default Creative Commons licence for all such forums. Currently the default position is that the person who creates something automatically holds the copyright in it, but the copyright owner can give it away, sell it, or more commonly license it to be used in certain conditions. So I hold the copyright in this blog, but I license it so that anyone can reuse it without cost, and with minimum formality. I do ask that if it is re-used, then my work is attributed to me, and that any amendments are released under the same share alike conditions. I think the same should apply to public, or semi public discussion fora, and that posters should be asked to opt out of a Creative Commons license. After all, the original issue probably got much wider coverage from the THES than it would have done had it stayed in the discussion group.