Week 3 of the Metaliteracy course is entitled “Becoming A Digital Citizen: Understanding Intellectual Property” and I confess I was disappointed in the week for two reasons. First and foremost, I was looking for a deeper dive into the issues around academic publishing and journals, and instead we were treated to a one-size-fits-all promotional video of how big academic journal publishers are pillaging the land of academic freedom. I learned far more from Michael Geist’s posts about the CRTC hearings back in December on potential reforms to the Copyright Act to address university usage of academic materials.
However, the second disappointment was more about the lack of nuancing of “free” vs. “open”. It is generally pushed by a group of online advocates that “free” is the wrong term, as it confuses free movement with free cost, and the much better term is open to everyone with no restrictions for access or cost. And for this week’s assignment, it was the topic we were assigned, but the expectation was clearly that we focus on how open was “better”.
I confess that I don’t think “open” is any better term than “free” for two reasons.
First, the classic quote is “information wants to be free”, but free in this quote means moving around without restriction. More like “free will” than “cheap”. But it gets corrupted by those who want to argue in favour of things like piracy, even for academic journals, that “information wants to be free” meaning $0 cost. Yet when people talk about “open”, it changes the dynamic. It focuses more on people “accessing the info” (a pull factor) rather than the original idea — information wants to move, it’s more dynamic than static. The latest research on prenatal screening results, the latest findings on cancer treatments, the best plugs to use for charging your iPhone…or, in my case, the best approach to preparing for an interview. People create information and they want to set it free into the wild. “Open” focuses on the recipient, not the creator, but it is the creator who decides on the license.
Second, open doesn’t have to be free cost. We tend to focus on “open” in this sense for things like texts that are written, or software. Information that can be in a digital form and transmitted digitally for “free”. Yet, if I use my example of a book I want to write, I have to pay for internet. I have to pay for a website. I had to pay for the courses I took to learn how to design a site, upload it, and cover ongoing hosting fees. If I worked out that it was $1000 a year to me to make something available, and 1000 people would access it, would “free” be $0 per copy or $1 per copy (which would be my break-even point)?
Equally, back in university, I worked for a technology support office for students located at the university. It was pre-internet, and so if people wanted copies of free software like statistical programs, they had to come to us to get it or find an online Bulletin Board to access from home or the mainframe. Most didn’t know how to do that so they came to us to get copies. It was free to get the software, but our office had to buy disks, print the manuals (a few sheets of paper), burn the software onto the disks which cost both the original costs of the disk plus the staff time to create them physically, and then to put them in an envelope, handle the cash, deposit any revenues, fill out reports like any good little store employee, etc. It was not, in fact, $0 to distribute the materials. But it was “open” to everyone. By the definition espoused, reimbursement for costs incurred would not in fact count as “open”.
I accept there are barriers to users. I accept there are barriers to movements. But I don’t think “free” or “open” gets around those issues. Nor do I think the 5Rs of openness (the ability to retain, reuse, revise, remix or redistribute) are as simply dealt with as the week’s materials suggest. Open Access is not simply the “best alternative” in a “free world”, it just happens to be one alternative. It is descriptive, not normative to me.
If you’ve read my website, you know for example that I have written part of an HR guide for participating in federal government job processes. Government processes and interviews are fairly specialised HR beasts, with major differences from the private sector in what will be asked, how it will be graded, etc. and very little of it is public or written down. So employees or potential employees frequently walk in blind to the processes, make simple mistakes, and miss out on a job they were both suited for and wanted. I used to provide 1-on-1 coaching for people, and it grew to group presentations, and now an online book.
I’ve considered publishing it commercially, but some of what holds me back from that are the same constraints / issues at play here. I think the info should be both free in cost and open for access. I gained the knowledge from people who helped me along the way, and I want to pay it back for others. But at the same time, I don’t want people simply coming along, copying all of it, and publishing a book under their name. It is commercially viable in an online format. I don’t mind people sharing it but I’m not writing it so others can make money off it.
And yet another side of me is conflicted. Writers should get paid for their work, and far too many authors have been ripped off over the years by bad contracts. I am not yet finished the work, and on an irregular basis, I waffle between the options. I would love for it to be completely public domain, yet I would be incensed if someone made a profit off my hard work and writing. So, the compromise would seem to me to be almost simple — no commercial uses. And yet I also feel a bit of a twinge when I look at adaptation. Reworking my materials? Remixing it? Tweaking and editing it and then sharing as their own, even with citation? Hmm…
For now, I’m likely to be comfortable with no adaptation, no commercial — but then it would be Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International, and definitely not a free culture license. I’m considering a cascade of materials, such as a shorter form that is fully open, a slightly more detailed version that is less open, and then the full version at this level.
As an added wrinkle, my employer also has a small say in the outcome. As an employee of the government, there are ethical obligations too, and the need to avoid a conflict of interest. Which means, in practical terms, I need to have them review it before I publish to ensure there are no conflicts with my day job, even though I’m publishing in my own personal life. And part of their considerations for “allowing” me to publish it (although technically it is more they identify if there are any potential conflicts, in the end it is still my decision) includes a lot of the same issues…will it be open access, will people have to pay, is it more factual in nature or is it a creative work, etc.? The more it looks like an open, free, factual document, the less conflict; the more it looks like a commercial, private, creative document, the more potential conflict (almost like I was charging people to know how to apply for jobs that are free to apply for by anyone, and even greater potential for appearance of conflict if I was running a competition while selling the book).
I might be too harsh on the week’s materials. I did learn some new stuff, and it got me working through the CCL options for the future, so maybe that’s all I can ask of the MOOC.