Let’s not copyright social innovation

Way back when, when I was working for government, we had dealings with a social innovation organisation (now defunct) who attempted to charge us a license fee for continued use of the social innovation that they had designed, with our funding, in one of our policy areas.

Obviously we said no, but it left a lasting impression on me about the futility of putting an intellectual property model around social innovation.

At Demsoc, we share the work we do and materials we use in an open way whenever we can, and we push our partners to do the same.

This is not just because we believe that making it open makes it better (to echo the phrase of Government Digital Service). We also think that you can’t have democracy without transparency, and that we are part of a wider movement to make democratic change happen. We contribute to that wider movement by sharing our work, in the same way that that wider movement contributes to us.

It is very much the same principle as open source software development. By making an approach open and allowing everyone to work on it, not only can you see that you are not being tricked, you are also able to see and benefit from the work of others.

The intellectual property conversation goes the other way as well. I have had, inside and outside government, several conversations with lawyers about how important it is that their clients hold onto the intellectual property of the innovation that we are working on. It is a futile quest. No council, and no individual part of government, has the resources to build complete democratic innovation from scratch. You are always relying on the knowledge and tools of others, and so questions of prior art and what into little property has been created become so entangled that its pointless trying to define copyright.

Moreover, if you see somebody else doing a similar project is that a breach of your intellectual property rights? Maybe they have just come up with the same idea, or read a news report about what you were doing. Democracy is not code, and the materials it uses not state secrets. Put a copyright symbol all over innovation and you send completely the wrong message about the democracy of the process.  Much better to make it open from the start, and share and share alike.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

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