Dylan Wrathall has joined in on the 'patch watcher debate' (click here to read it) and has made a number of interesting points. The one that got me going was dealing with bird information and who owns it. That's quite a hot topic at the moment.
Let's assume that you are walking along a hedgerow, binoculars at the ready, and a Red-flanked Bluetail flits out of the vegetation and starts to hop about in front of you. You have found the bird and at that moment in time, nobody else has seen it, let alone knows about it. What do you do with that information - that there is a Red-flanked Bluetail present at this particular patch of yours. There is more than one scenario. You could say nothing and nobody need ever know about it. Or you could say nothing and then send in the record (with a description) to the local bird recorder sometime in the future. There again, you could tell a few close friends and leave it at that. Or you could text, tweet, phone and shout so that the whole of the birding world knows about it. But, whatever you decide to do IT IS YOUR INFORMATION AND WHAT YOU DO WITH IT IS ENTIRELY UP TO YOU. I've put that in capital letters because it's up to the individual what course of action they will take, whether you agree with how they deal with it or not. Of course, to say nothing and tell nobody will have no repercussions, because as far as everybody else is concerned, it never happened. To do nothing and spill the beans later - well, let's just say that you will need to be prepared for a backlash, whether it's warranted or not.
But, once your news has gone out into the public domain, it seems to be taken for granted that this is now public property. Bird information services (texts, pagers, websites, magazines) will publish it (and charge customers for it) without asking you if it's OK for them to do so. IS THIS FAIR?
The companies that own these services wouldn't use a photograph that you'd taken of the Bluetail without your permission to do so (and you might also get paid for them publishing it). So why should information be free? Is it written in law somewhere that information sent out into cyberspace is public property? And what about information that hasn't been 'released' by the finder in a digital format, but by a friend who has tweeted this information after getting a phone call or a private text message about the Bluetail's presence?
A hard one, this. The more I think about it the more confused I get. If I send in my bird records to a county recorder, I sort of accept that these can be used in the publication of that county's annual bird report. But what of third-party usage beyond that, particularly one in which the third-party is making money? There must be a legal ruling on all of this, but I'm not going to contact a solicitor to find out - have you seen how much they charge an hour?
For most of us, the free use to others of our birding data is just accepted and we don't give it much consideration. It's an unwritten rule in the world of amateur ornithology. But there are professionals out there who are more than happy for us to carry on with a free supply of product...