Carl Malamud explains rules for radicals

30 04 2010

Carl Malamud of public.resource.org discusses the rules for radicals. (Photo by Dan Rickershauser)

Day three of the FutureWeb conference, part of WWW2010, was started off with a keynote from Carl Malamud, the president and founder of public.resource.org and an advocate for the public domain.

He shared a brief history of his encounters with seven bureaucratic institutions over the years, as he fought to convince the government and some private institutions to put public information into the public domain.

He is arguably the world’s foremost public domain advocate, and his message was aimed at equipping everyone in the room with the tools to save, swap, share, negotiate and thrive doing it.

“I hope to leave you with some rules for radicals,” he said proposing, in essence, a how-to guide for fighting off nay-sayers, getting the opposition on your side of the ring and rallying public support. The tips were framed around his personal efforts to move documents of public ownership and importance to be widely accessible on the web, and available for free. It’s a task that often meant elbowing off institutions that were turning a profit on what was technically public property.

His tales of working with bureaucracies ranged from working with the International Telecommunication Union in the early 90s to release the Blue Book, an essential resource for the development of the Internet that laid out telecommunication standards, to his more recent struggles to get video of historic importance available on YouTube. The tips were framed around his personal efforts to move documents of public ownership and importance to be widely accessible on the web, and available for free. It’s a task that often meant elbowing off institutions that were turning a profit on what was technically public property.

Malamud reminisced about the early days of the Internet, merrily name-dropping in tales about his encounters with the early initiators of the standards and protocols of today’s highly evolved networks – including his experience seeing Tim Berners-Lee give one of the first demonstrations of the Web.

“There was the Internet, and then there were respectable networks,” he joked as he discussed an early Internet that was based on open standards with no king.

He shared anecdotes about the winding path of permissions he took to getting to the point where he has digitized hundreds of government films for the Internet Archive and YouTube. He has also published a 5-million-page crawl of the Government Printing Office.

Along the way he shared …

Carl Malamud’s RULES for RADICALS

Rule 1: Call everything you do an experiment.

“Word started to trickle back that maybe the Internet was bigger than previously thought,” Malamud said.Getting the antiquated file of the Blue Book into a usable form took some effort. And who knew that putting the book online would consume practically all of the bandwidth the National Science Foundation had at the time? http://resource.org/itu.int/index.html

Rule 2: When the authorities fire the gun, run as fast as you can that way, when they get that queesy feeling, it’s too late to stop.

When the congressional overseers of the SEC gave the green light to make EDGAR data accessible on the web, a number of players quickly aligned to make the dream possible. http://resource.org/sec.gov/index.html

“If code is law then law is code,” he said. “It has to be open source.”

Malamud described how he did a lot of the “future is here demos” when researching the Internet in the early 1990’s.

He worked with Steve Wolff of the National Science Foundation to receive an NSF grant. Ninety days after receiving the grant, the first server was up and running. It ran for a year and a half. By mid 1995 there were 50,000 people a day using the service, Malamud said.

Rule 3: Eyeballs rule, build up a user base and you will have more leverage.

“Build up a user base and you have more leverage than you would just blowing smoke,” Malamud said. When Malamud worked to get the SEC to take responsibility for putting the EDGAR database online, it certainly helped that 50,000 people a day were using the service. And having those users fill the inboxes of News Gingrich, Al Gore and the chairman of the SEC helped to prove the importance of having the EDGAR database in the public domain. http://resource.org/sec.gov/index.html

Rule 4: When you achieve you objective don’t be afraid to turn on a dime and be nice.

It might take some stern words, straight-arming and threats to get people to comply with open source requests, but once you get there be nice to the organizations you’re working with. A few years later, Google bought YouTube for 1.5 million and the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) developed in Washington, DC, which allows for access to approximately over 3 million publications covering 350 subject areas.

“The nice thing about the government” Malamud said…. “is that for the most part, it is public domain.”

Rule 5: Keep asking and keep rephrasing the question until they can say, “yes.”

When the National Technical Information Service was charging rates like $50 for a 29-minute government-owned VHS video, Malamud called foul. He soon found that by law the NTIS had to cover their costs, and low demand for the videos were the culprit for the unreasonable fees. He was able to work a deal where the government would loan his group FedFlicks the tapes, they would digitize it and put it in the public domain, and then return the VHS to the government. A simple solution that just took a few tries to arrive at. http://resource.org/ntis.gov/

Rule 6: When you get the microphone, make your point clearly.

Malamud described the importance of open source.

“We write down the rules that citizen must obey,” he said. “How can we be citizens of law if that isn’t open source?”

It took some work to show government officials that they were getting royally duped by a deal made with Amazon to distribute government videos. When Malamud laid things out clearly during a congressional testimony, he was able to get politicians to supporting putting the videos in the public domain.

Rule 7: Get standing. Have some skin in the game and a reason that you are at the table. If there’s something clearly wrong that can be documented, the government has to talk to you.

Rule 8: Get the bureaucrats to fight with you.

Some people might have started shaking in their boots when the Oregon legislature sent a take-down notice for publishing their state statutes online. They claimed it violated copyright because the state sold a print edition of the statues and Malamud’s website was threatening their revenue stream. http://resource.org/oregon.gov/

Rule 9: Look for overreaching, something that’s truly nuts.

Since state statutes can’t be copyrighted, Oregon eventually came around and voted to waive the actions about copyright. http://resource.org/oregon.gov/

Rule 10: Don’t be afraid to fail.

Malamud closed his talk by telling the tale of Thomas Edison who reportedly failed 10,000 times before he got the lightbulb to work. “I have not failed,” Edison said, “I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

“Fail often. And don’t forget to question authority,” Malamud concluded.

By Olivia Hubert-Allen and Laura Smith

ADDITIONAL DETAILS FROM THIS EVENT…
Video and more written FutureWeb coverage:
http://bit.ly/imaginingtheinternet
FutureWeb YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/Futureweb2010#p/u
Flickr photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/38539612@N02/sets/72157623891937652/


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