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Quora and the Future of Research

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The future of research is egalitarian. Legal mechanisms like copyleft licensing are stimulating fresh market value.

I’m not afraid of the masses. We’re fourteen years out into a millennium where, for the first time in history, it’s possible to build things entirely by consensus. Script-laying joe schmoes who have never met each other can sidle side-by-side up a scaffold of code and build platforms that everyone in the virtual community can use, for free, to solve all categories of problems, from my homework to your enterprise.

My metaphor is about open source software, but in the broader sense I’m talking about copyleft licensing for many different varieties of creative work. Whereas copyright protects creative expression by limitation, copyleft preserves that protection while simultaneously making it possible for the work to become a wellspring for future creative expression by adding creator-selected exemptions for third-party use. Copyleft licensing is a kind of give-and-take for the creative community that builds incentives into the creative process.

Granted, copyleft doesn’t work for everything. It may not boost an author’s royalties to license her novel through the Creative Commons. Nor may it make sense for a corporation to release its secret-sauce white papers via a GNU general public license. (There are arguments to the contrary, of course.) But when it does make sense, everybody wins.

Take Quora, for example. The concept’s not new: Quora is just an infinite FAQ. The junkyard version of this is Wiki Answers or (God help you) Yahoo! Answers. Quora’s spin is that inquirers can seek out answerers based on their identities, of which answerers have many, depending on the types of knowledge the answerers possess. So if you’re a neuroscientist who also dabbles in poetry, you can answer questions about the amygdala as a brain doctor or anapestic trimeter as a poet who fancies limericks.

The beauty of Quora is that when you post on the site, you’re agreeing to add a copyleft license to your work, so that both Quora and other users can make use of it (bolding mine):

You retain ownership of all Content you submit, post, display, or otherwise make available on the Service … You grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed). … You agree that this license includes the right for other users of the Service to modify your Content, and for Quora to make your Content available to others for the publication, distribution, syndication, or broadcast of such Content on other media and services, subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use.

The result is a self-policing open repository of knowledge with built-in incentives. Quora (may eventually) profit through advertising; you may profit by getting your questions answered by a worldwide community of experts for free; and the answerers may profit in a variety of ways: the gratification that comes with helping others, the visibility that comes with being recognized as an authority on a topic, or the understanding that their contributions will be repaid in turn when they use the site as inquirers.

As an aspiring science fiction writer, I like Quora because I can perform ad hoc research in really obscure topics, like faster-than-light travel via cosmic strings or the value of labor in first-stage Marxism as it pertains to pricing consumption goods or chirality in higher dimensional objects. I can ask very specific questions of practicing PhDs or armchair economists and get a quick sense of a topic so I can dive into more extensive research later. And on the flip side, I contribute my knowledge of the Web back to Quora, for all the reasons I listed above.

The future of research, it seems, is egalitarian. Legal mechanisms like copyleft licensing are one among many tools we’re advancing to make it easier for web technology to enhance creative expression, and stimulate fresh market value.

This post originally appeared on Leap, the branding agency for innovators®.


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