Open content

Universities as copyright warriors



To follow up on my last past and clarify a few points.

I wasn't arguing that universities should ignore copyright because they think they're special, or that they should advocate wholesale piracy. Rather it was that universities are in a privileged position. They can fight on behalf of the general populace.

In oppressive regimes it is often universities who form the opposition. They are the harbour for free thought and legitimate protest. It is the students and academics who fight on behalf of higher ideals. Copyright and the large organisations who seek to enforce it can be seen as the oppressive regime of the creative net. So in a digital society, the role of the university should be to take a stand against this form of tyranny.

As an academic, particularly one at the Open University, I need never worry about copyright. I am lucky – there is an excellent rights department who will negotiate on my behalf, chase up rights, manage complicated clearance, and so on. It isn't that these people the world over aren't doing a good job -  it's they're doing too good a job. They are playing the copyright game which is perpetuating control.

So here is what I'm not saying: We can break any copyright we like and say 'it's okay we're educators.' I am not suggesting universities should encourage piracy, but they should be doing everything they can to encourage new forms of expression, creativity and communication. Also I think creators should be rewarded for their work – but let's be clear, rights are owned by large companies who buy them up purely as a revenue stream. This has little to do with rewarding the artists. See my last point below on how we might legitimately reward artists while still encouraging remixing.

Here's what I am saying: Universities can take a stand at an institutional and professional level to help change the landscape. They are in a unique position to do so as they both create content and perform the social good of education. They possess both a stick and carrot.

Now individuals can take a stance but it is at the institutional level that change really happens. This is what the Cape Town Declaration was trying to achieve. Here are some actions they could take, ranging from the relatively mundane to the revolutionary:

  • Promote open publishing – academics should be encouraged to work on, and publish in open journals, or open forms of publishing
  • Recognise open work – the promotions and rewards criteria should explicitly reward 'open' work by academics 
  • Release archive content – the Open University is different from many universities in that it has a large archive of broadcast material. It is working hard to a) digitise this and b) get rights clearance. The latter is a nightmare – any use of music, anytime a third party image or clip is used, or someone is interviewed we have to get clearance all over again, because the initial clearance didn't include open, online release. A very brave move by the OU (and even better, the BBC) would be just to release all this material and effectively put down the challenge 'we think releasing this for education is in the public interest, if rights owners want to challenge that then let's have this debate publicly'. While they may not have the same type of archive, many universities will have an archive of sorts. Releasing this content will force the copyright issue.
  • Use open content as default – try and use open, freely accessible content. This will force rights owners to make their content available, otherwise it won't be seen. The suitability of content for its teaching purpose is the priority, but the starting point should be to use open content.
  • Legitimise the mashup – by making remixing and the mashup a form of output that is recognised in assessment, universities will go a long way to making it a legitimate form of expression, and thus pushing the rights issue further.
  • Make creative commons a default – open licences such as creative commons should be the default mode of operation for all universities in terms of academic output, and student material. There will be exceptions (eg research with a commercial or sensitive nature), but this is about changing the default settings.
  • Use material we find online (eg YouTube clips) and not worry about clearance – playing the 'has every second of this clip been rights cleared, otherwise we can't use it' game undermines the value of the remix, and plays into the hands of rights owners.
  • Teach and encourage attribution and reference – one of the cornerstones of academia is correct attribution. In the video below Lessing talks about extremism on both sides of the rights debate. As well as fighting against the oppression by rights, universities have a role in education on the other side. Making attribution a core skill we recognise is one way of doing this.
  • Developing new models – it seems to me that we have a rather blanket response from rights owners. If we want people to respect rights at all then we have to make it easy for them. Negotiating for rights clearance with a large multinational is not going to work for an individual. But, if there was a simple 'pay to use' scheme then a lot (not all, but enough) of people would use it. For example, when I wanted to use 'Anarchy in the UK' for my edupunk video, I'm not going to track down clearance, but if there was an iTunes type rights use store, and it was a set, iTunes type price (got to be less than £1), then I'd use it. Universities could surely help in developing a responsible model such as this.

Here is Lessig, making most of these points much better at TED (via Mark Morley):



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