free culture Archive

Pirates Be Here!
Once again Antigua is in the news for threatening to allow open distribution of materials that have been copyrighted by U.S.-based entities. This stems from a ruling by the World Trade Organisation that by forbidding Americans from accessing gambling web sites in other countries, but allowing them to go to Las Vegas and Atlantic City instead, the U.S. government was protecting their own industry by limiting access to foreign competitors. Even though they’ve lost as much as a billion dollars from U.S. protectionism here, the Antiguans haven’t yet taken advantage of the ruling, and it’s widely believed this is the case because of the fear of dire reprisal from the Colossus to the North.

It’s a fascinating case, and one that anyone interested in international trade should follow. In the meantime, though, to help one gain an understanding, one of the more amusing analogies for explaining why the Antiguans have such a strong case comes from Greg Sabino Mullane, who wrote:

They’re doing it flagrantly because it’s explicitly tit-for-tat. It’s their way of pointedly asking “Do we have rules or not?”



Let’s say you and I are sociopathic assholes, so whereas most people might have some kind of implicit social contract, and a sense of how people should act decently to one another, we’re jerks and write up and agree to some formal rules. Among these rules are things like “Neither party will ever hit the other in the head with a hammer and then steal their wallet while the victim is incapacitated.” Call that the WIPO rule.



We have another rule too. It’s “Neither party will ever vandalize the other’s car.” Call that the WTO rule.



Then I go and vandalize your car, totally in violation of the rules. I don’t deny it, either. Instead, I explain I had good reasons to do it. “I really wanted to vandalize your car, and it looked so vulnerable. I just couldn’t help it!” but whether I had a good reason or not, you claim I broke our agreement. You might not feel all that hurt about the car, but breaking the agreement… oh dear. We’re sociopaths, but we’re not uncivilized, are we?



After my amazing explanation for why I did it, you ask me: “Are you going to do it again?” and I answer “Yeah, probably. Your car still does look pretty vandalizable, and I really like vandalizing cars.” You answer “What about our agreement?” and I just shrug. You ask, “Are our agreements important?” and I shrug again!!



You go see our mutual acquaintances, perhaps some people with whom I also have some agreements. They’re a little concerned to hear I value our agreements so little. Will their cars be next? They think it over and say, “Yeah, Sloppy broke his agreement to not vandalize your car. You should get even.”



So you do. You hit me in the head with a hammer and I wake up without a wallet. You do it openly, too. Our acquaintances nod with approval, even though you’re breaking the agreement now. I ask, “How can you do that?!?”



You explain: if I think the rules are so important, and I have such a problem with being hit with hammers, THEN MAYBE I SHOULD STOP FUCKING AROUND WITH OTHER PEOPLE’S CARS.



I don’t know what I’ll do. I still really do like vandalizing cars. I’d like to vandalize your car again, and that other dude with whom I have a no-vandalize agreement. But I’m not sure I like this hammers development. OTOH, I don’t know, maybe it’s worth it. The hammers hurt and I don’t like losing my wallet all the time, but the cars! Oh, the cars! That’s so much fun.

Now, the analogy isn’t quite apt because the Antiguans haven’t actually allowed open redistribution of copyrighted materials, at least not yet. But if they do, then the American mainstream media are sure to slam them as the next incarnation of Somalia, so it’s important in advance for people to understand who really started the trouble — and it’s not Antigua.

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“I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.” — Oscar Wilde

Shitty Advice
I’ve been pretty busy with a cool project I’ll be announcing soon, and that means no time for blogging. But something I read really jostled me into taking a few minutes to respond. It’s no secret that while I like MOOCs, I think they’re way overblown. Now, a blogger for Harvard Business Review named Leonard Fuld has succumbed to the hype, and gotten a few other things about higher education wrong as well.

The premise of the article is that one should Embrace the Business Model That Threatens You. Not bad advice on the face of it, although unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be working very well for Barnes & Noble. Is such an approach necessary for traditional providers of higher education? Let’s see a few selections from the article.

It soon became clear to the teams and to the observers in the room that neither the online nor the traditional college “education delivery” model alone could prevail.

False. There are plenty of successful schools that only offer one mode of instruction, both liberal arts schools that don’t do online, and distance learning schools that don’t have a campus at all, but just an office.

Traditional brick-and-mortar schools suffer from a high cost base that has resulted in tuitions reaching stratospheric heights.

False. Tuition is where it is because federal financial aid programs have made tens of thousands of dollars available to the least sophisticated and creditworthy students. Rates have outpaced inflation because there’s an artificial ocean of money to soak up.

Meanwhile, the alluring proposition of the online offerings — courses you can take anywhere, anytime, at a lower price point — is tainted by high drop-out rates and the somewhat lower credibility of their certificates and degrees.

False. The credibility gap isn’t with online study, it’s with for profit schools, two categories that drive-by commentators often confuse since in the early days of online higher education for-profit providers were the only ones nimble enough to give working adults the convenience they demanded.

At the same time, this solution called for the MOOC to serve as a student lead generator and revenue producer for brick-and-mortar university partners.

I don’t have data &emdash; no one does, MOOCs are too new &emdash; but I expect they’d be a terrible lead generator for brick and mortar schools. Maybe that’s okay, if they’re inexpensive enough and your tuition is high enough then even an extremely low conversion rate would be considered success. But I can’t imagine it’s the best possible investment.

So, anyway, just another reminder that just because advice is offered earnestly doesn’t mean it’s actually any good. Caveat lector!

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Using Wikipedia Articles To Make OER Textbooks

Posted February 4, 2013 By Steve

“We are going to have to invest in our people and make available to them participation in the great educational process of research and development in order to learn more. When we learn more, we are able to do more with our given opportunities.” — Buckminster Fuller

open educational resources
Yesterday was pretty busy. We had a slightly belated family party for my eldest son’s sixteenth birthday, a trip to Warrenton and back to drop off my daughter, and, of course, watching the most excellent and exciting Superbowl in years, complete with a victory for the Baltimore Ravens, who I’d chosen as my favorite based more or less on proximity. D.C. and Baltimore are basically one big area, and they had to root for our football team during their years in the post-Colts wilderness, so when they make it to the big game it seems good to return the favor. Besides, D.C. people were in Orioles’ territory until the Nationals showed up, so rooting for a Baltimore team isn’t all that strange around here.

But enough about all that. In between those other events, I made a presentation for the online CO13 conference on how to use Wikipedia’s Book Creator tool to make quick, easy OER textbooks from Wikipedia articles. I “um” and “uh” too much — as a presenter I’m not exactly Frederick Douglass. But the information is there. I plan to distill it into a working paper for the Free Curricula Centre when I get the chance, so if you’re not in a hurry you may want to just wait for that.

If you are in a hurry, though, there is a recording of the presentation.

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Questions About Copyright

Posted January 15, 2013 By Steve

It's a Nina Paley tribute
In an online conversation, an acquaintance who supports copyright asked a number of questions about how things would work in its absence. Obviously I’m not chair of the anti-copyright committee, but there are some possible answers. If you have a better one, please leave a comment!

Q. I don’t think anyone answered my question above about who will fund drug research if scientists & researchers don’t give their time for free?

A. Universities, philanthropists, generic drug companies (some are very large, and the last thing they’d want is no pipeline), and (alas) probably government.

Q. should a publisher (small or large) have a choice of whether they give content away or not?

A. This is a semantic problem. They’re not giving anything away because copying and taking are two different things. It gets back to what I was saying about scarcity, and how information isn’t property. Nina Paley’s song Copying Is Not Theft explains the sentiment, although it’s not exactly a dissertation and obviously leaves unanswered questions.

Q. Should Gary Trudeau be entitled to syndicate his column however he wishes? Or should he be forced to give his “product” away?

A. Same answer. And the repeated presumption is that artists, musicians, and writers won’t produce content without copyright, even though historically we know that’s not the case.

Q. is a local newspaper entitled to charge subscribers for either its print edition or its online edition? (the only difference is in the method of delivery)

A. Sure, if subscribers will pay, then that’s between them. Also, remember that a print copy of a newspaper is a physical item, subject to scarcity, and really is property.

Q. is a reporter entitled to be paid for his research?

A. Entitled? No. Otherwise I would research things that interest me all day and demand payment from someone.

Q. is Bruce Springsteen entitled to sell his works? Or does he have no right to make that choice?

A. He’s entitled to do whatever he wants. This isn’t about telling artists what they can do, it’s about not telling everyone else what they can’t do. Incidentally, though, musicians make more money on tour than they do from CD sales, so this is a pretty big red herring.

Q. if you look at the credits of any given movie, you’ll see 100s of people helping put that together. Do they deserve to be compensated?

A. They’re unlikely to work on the movie otherwise. But you don’t need a copyright regime to make that happen. Iron Sky, a movie that came out earlier this year, was specifically meant to be free for others to copy, yet it’s made money from voluntary subscription, logo merchandise, etc.

Q. if a publisher (movie, music, journalism, art, whatever) or research company (bio-technology) invests heavily in something and it bombs, should the government bail them out?

A. Not in my opinion. But that’s not a copyright issue.

Q. if someone spend a year writing a book or journal article and it benefits the public, should that be free?

A. The “year” part is a distractor, because it relies on a discredited nineteenth century economic principle called the labor theory of value. Just because I spend time and effort on something doesn’t make it inherently valuable. Or, as Scrooge MacDuck said, “Work smarter, not harder.” The “public” part is also a distractor, since there’s no such thing there are only individuals, who surely would benefit unevenly from just about anything.

Q. If a farmer spends a year working in his field, should he be required to put the harvest in a free public stand for whoever wants it?

A. No. But produce is property, if you have an apple and I take it, you can’t also have it anymore. Information is not property, if you know something and I learn it, you still know it.

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The Recent SOPA Strike

Posted January 20, 2012 By Steve

For what it’s worth, I meant for this site to participate in the SOPA strike on the 18th. But the WordPress plugin I so confidently chose to make this happen apparently didn’t do anything. So, in the now famous words of erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, “Oops.”

Oh well, at least I blogged about it over on eLearners News.

Meanwhile, if you don’t know what all the fuss is about, I think the best concise description of the danger of SOPA and PIPA has been provided by Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy. Shoot first and think later, indeed!

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Important: Unesco Replaces OER Acronym

Posted April 1, 2011 By Steve

Unesco logo
Today brings an important announcement from Unesco pertaining to open education. Those educational resources that have been referred to for the past nine years as “Open Educational Resources” are to be renamed. There are two reasons for the end of the use of the OER acronym. One is that there is continuing debate between those who believe these resources should be called “open” and those prefer to term “free” to describe them. Also, simply referring to them as “educational” resources has been shown to exclude many other areas where they have become increasingly important, such as research and training.

As a result, officially they are no more to be referred to as “Open Educational Resources”, or OERs. From 1st April on, they are to be known as “Freely/Openly Enabled Resources Supporting Training, Education, and Research”.

Unesco officials explained that while they realize that many people have become accustomed to the now deprecated “OER” terminology, it is important that these vital, renewable intellectual resources be renamed to something that highlights all of the areas where they are transforming education around the world. As such, it is expected that before long, those in the movement will become familiar with and happy to use the new term “FOERSTER” to describe these crucial resources.

Please make a note of it!

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Fair Use as a Complement to Open Licensing

Posted November 14, 2007 By Steve

Penn State World Campus has a great discussion series on open source software and open educational resources called Terra Incognita. I’ve written a piece for it on Fair Use as a Complement to Open Licensing. Feel free to check it out.

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Covering the Public Domain’s Back

Posted August 13, 2007 By Steve
One of the things I found surprising about international law was that it’s not always possible, or at least easy, for an author to place his or her work into the public domain. There are civil law countries in which so-called moral rights cannot be waived. This has been an issue for me, in that I wish to promote dedication to the public domain as the most practical way of releasing content that can be used, copied, distributed, and remixed without any possibility of conflict.

Now Dave Wiley of the OpenContent Foundation has proposed a license that reserves no rights at all. In other words, it’s a license the terms of which are functionally identical to a public domain dedication but with a completely different legal basis. While I’m not a lawyer, it seems to me that if other open licenses (such as those from Creative Commons) are valid throughout the world than this approach would be an ideal complement to a public domain dedication. For jurisdictions that recognize an author’s right to disclaim intellectual entitlements, the public domain dedication would apply. For those that do not, the license would take up the slack.

My only objection is that he’s referring to it as an “Open Education License”, stemming from his original intention to devise a license that would prevent incompatible copyleft provisions from keeping content segregated in separate unremixable silos. He’s right that this is a pressing issue for the open education movement, but I think that this license has much broader potential than for just educational materials, and hope that he ends up selecting a more generic name for it as discussion on the matter continues.

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Excuse my French

Posted August 12, 2007 By Steve

There’s a lot of discussion in the free culture movement about the two definitions of “free” that we use to describe our work. Summarized well by Wikipedia, the definitions are often described as:

  1. “Free as in beer”, or gratis, where those using free content or software don’t have to pay any money to do so; and

  2. “Free as in freedom”, or libre, where those using free content or software have the right to make derivative works.

What I find interesting are the suggestions to use the words gratis and libre to make this differentiation clear. The argument is that it’s necessary to borrow these words from French because there aren’t separate words in English that denote these different meanings of freedom.

Whatever flaws the English language may have, however, a stilted vocabulary is not among them. Rather than import more words, why not simply use ones we already have? Specifically, I suggest that free as in beer can be described as costless, and free as in freedom can be described as unencumbered. They’re accurate, unambiguous, and already present in English. Let’s use them!

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Goals for the Free Culture Movement

Posted June 29, 2007 By Steve

Over at Free Culture, Kevin Driscoll has asked people to write a brief bit on how they see the world being different after five more years of the free culture movement. While I appreciate the artistic creativity of multimedia mashups and the like, my concerns are mostly in the open education part of the free culture movement. So in keeping with that, I’ll briefly set forth three goals and add some explanation.

Goals

Commonality Goal: We as an open education movement will have drafted a declaration of commonalities similar to the Budapest Open Access Initiative, and that policymakers will have begun to sign on to it.

OER Output Goal: At least in the English language and hopefully others, we will have made significant progress toward the goal of a set of free curricula in all disciplines at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels.

Diversity Goal: There will be an expectation throughout the open education movement that open educational resources (OERs) will be available not just in English, but whatever languages on instruction parents and students think best, and that different societies with different contexts will be able to localize content to suit their needs.

Narrative

The recent iCommons Summit in Dubrovnik, Croatia was well represented by different segments of the open education movement, and one of our conclusions was that we would like to take the main points on which we all agree in time for next year’s Summit in Sapporo so that we can walk away from there having drafted a Sapporo Declaration.

Having a complete set of free curricula in all disciplines at all levels by 2015 is a goal of WikiEducator, a Commonwealth of Learning project. I think that it’s possible, but that it will be difficult and will require momentum now. Eight years may sound like a long time, but it really isn’t.

The output and diversity goals may seem to be putting in opposite directions a bit, and to some extent I suppose they are. It will be challenging enough to have a single set of curricula by 2015, much less have localized variations. Still, I can see that we as a movement will have to balance these objectives.

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