The battle for open – tales from the front

I know some people don’t like the whole “battle” idea in my book, and I get why it isn’t always applicable. But sometimes, it really does feel that way. In what could become a regular feature, if I could be bothered, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of stories that really emphasise the battle (or struggle if you prefer) aspect of open education currently.

The battle for language: This story that the University of Guelph trademarked the term “OpenEd” has largely resolved itself now. Understandably most of us who have worked in Open Ed for years were outraged, particularly when Guelph then aggressively pursued BC Campus over its use of the term. Brian Lamb and Clint Lalonde both captured this sense of outrage. Eventually, Guelph backtracked and climbed down. I won’t dwell on how misguided the attempt was in the first place, but rather just highlight that this shows that “Open” has market value now, and that commercial interests will seek to control what that means.

The battle for money: I could pick a similar story every month, but this CBC piece comparing the profits publishers make with the dire straits of many university libraries caught my attention. The researcher found that “the five largest, for-profit academic publishers now publish 53 per cent of scientific papers in the natural and medical sciences – up from 20 per cent in 1973. In the social sciences, the top five publishers publish 70 per cent of papers.” That’s a lot of control we’ve ceded to them. Make no mistake, we, as academics, messed up here and lost control over our own content and knowledge dissemination. A similar story in that Russian libraries lost access to Springer journals because they were unable to pay the fees.

The battle for ownership: Thanks to my OU colleague Simon Knight for flagging this. Potentially a change in European copyright laws might see the loss of the “freedom of panorama”. That is, you can take photos of public buildings without breaching copyright. As Simon highlighted, there is an implication for OERs here that include photos of public buildings. It’s supposed to allow non-commercial use, but that can be a grey area (eg if you are sharing them on a commercial site such as Facebook, Slideshare, that might count as commercial use). It’s one of those detailed legal arguments that might come to nothing, but equally we might found someone being prosecuted for by some over-zealous claimant. It also adds in another potential barrier, fear factor and layer of confusion for educators who just want to create a learning resource.

The battle to share: Colombian student Diego Gomez faces a potential prison sentence of 4-8 years for sharing an academic article he liked on Scribd. He didn’t make any money from it, he just thought others would benefit from reading it. The author sued for economic damage and the full weight of the law kicked in. Even if you think it was wrong of Gomez to share, the response seems massively disproportionate – it is an example of a legal system designed for one use, coming smack into the digital world and then floundering around like a bully. These type of confrontations will become more frequent.

When you view these, it’s hard not to frame it as a battle, one to make sure openness stays open, and that it isn’t closed down or thwarted for other uses. Or maybe I’m just paranoid and see it everywhere…

5 Comments

    1. Thanks Paul-Olivier – it seems like one of those pieces of legislation that you think won’t affect you, but in a digital, networked age may end up having ridiculous consequences

      1. One area where this might have a ridiculous, unintended, yet positive consequence is in the realm of privacy. What if I put a barcode and some faux-art on my windows or clothes, to serve as a talisman protecting me against camera intrusion. It sounds sci-fi-ish, but DCMA requests have been used in similar contexts, so it’s not as big of a stretch as one can think.

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