If you have been reading my blog or tweets, you know that I believe that the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is a nearly total failure. It is a failure because the people who should be taking leadership in seeing the creation of a world where educational content is shared freely have held back from the notion of freedom, preferring instead to create a world that only some categories of humans are allowed to contribute into. Much of this appears to be done out of ignorance, or out of a desire to increase global brand value. Two good examples of bad examples are MIT Open Courseware and Sal Khan's Khan Academy. The biggest technical reason for the failure of the OER movement is the indiscriminate use of the Creative Commons License with a NonCommercial restriction. This restriction's most powerful effect is the opposite of what most people seem to believe when they use it. However, it is mostly used because of our common 'herd mentality'. MIT uses it and the rest of us follow.
I recently made a comment on a friend's Facebook post about unglue.it. I said that the notion that they are using Creative Commons Licenses doesn't make it worthwhile, since Creative Commons has some evil licenses. In this case I was referring to the NonCommercial (NC) and NoDerivatives (ND) restrictions, but mainly the NC one. I use words like 'evil' to show the depth of my concern for the damage that the indiscriminate use of these license restrictions cause.
I specifically said of unglue.it, "I can't see any indication of what licenses they use. Since Creative Commons has some really evil licenses, this is no guarantee that ungluing the book makes it any more useful than leaving it full copyright, but available as a no-cost download. People misuse the name of Creative Commons as if it was all one thing."
The reply came back that pure copyleft or public domain polarises the world, and doesn't allow for people to graduate their sharing capacity, or choose under which conditions their work can be used.
This is something with which I agree whole heartedly. I am writing a book, and when it is finished - if ever - I will publish it under a license that uses the NC restriction. But that is a LEGITIMATE and MEANINGFUL use of NC, most uses are not legitimate or meaningful, they are just follow-the-leader decisions that are not thought through or properly understood.
My friend went on to say that the ability to select a legally viable, and enforceable sharing that still opens the door to education resources, patents, research, music, books or film - even without remix/derivative powers or the ability for others to use it commercially is surely vastly healthier for all of us than permission-based copyright?
I partially agree with this. It would be easier to agree more fully if we were rational beings. We are not. But still, it is hard to disagree with the statement, so again, the issue is not the technology (the license), but with the way in which it is used. A chainsaw is a good piece of technology, but if you use it indiscriminately and try to use it for everything, you are bound to cause harm. The NC restriction is the chainsaw of OER, it is only that the harm being done is not obvious unless you are used to participating in initiatives that enjoy genuine freedom, and are also used to thinking about digital freedom and thinking long term. That's the rub.
My friend then said
"For a robust read/write world, we need bridges across the ever widening chasm between traditional copyright and free & open works. It's worth revisiting cooperation and Game Theory to see why a binary decision - all open or all closed - keeps us locked in a very disappointing outcome. Not everyone is ethical or can keep their selfish plunderer at bay."
From a Facebook conversation
There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe in binary thinking, and those who do not. I fall into the latter camp, and I totally agree with the usefulness of less free licenses under certain circumstances. However the notion encapsulated in the last statement "Not everyone is ethical or can keep their selfish plunderer at bay" is the essence of the problem. The fact that people might blunder is not the issue, but the fact that the fear that someone might misuse something is driving the thinking. When fear of misuse is the primary driver, we end up with what in South Africa is called the laager mentality. It is not a good way to foster sharing things equally.
When you are driven by fear of misuse, you will make decisions that prevent legitimate and good use. This is axiomatic, and there is no way to avoid it. This fear of misuse appears to be a major driver of the choice of NC restrictions, yet the ShareAlike clause should be enough to prevent the kind of misuse that most people imagine will happen to there amazing and awesome works.
The problem is, when you choose the NC restriction, you are not just preventing abuse, you are preventing anyone with a possibly commercial qualification from beneficiating your work and giving it back. You are preventing commercial interests from building on and improving your work, for example by translating it or by making it more useful for the curriculum of a particular country or region. You are preventing them from adding their - perhaps superior - artwork and giving it back to the community. You are stopping the contribution from people who may have the resources to sustainably continue improving your work, and giving it back to the education community.
If you want to prevent commercial abuse, use the Attribution-ShareAlike license. The copyleft component means that nobody can use it commercially without giving back the things that they do with it. This is what has made Free Software much more valuable, not less valuable as users of the NC restriction seem to think. Without this understanding that it is not the commercial USE that matters, it is the commercial INPUT, the giving back that comes from copyleft. Imagine where Linux would be if commercial entities were not permitted to GIVE. The NC restriction prevents commercial use, but it also prevents commercial IMPROVEMENT. It prevents commercial entities from making it better in a particular context. This undermines the whole INTENT of creating a shared culture.
OF COURSE, there can be abuse, but I challenge anyone to come up with any example where the commercial abuse has outweighed the benefit of commercial improvement, or show that the frequency of abuse is greater than the frequency for beneficiation. You can't do this for content because there are not enough people who get it to provide the examples, but you can sure do it with software.
This unwillingness to allow commercial entities to give to the OER community is affecting me at the moment, and this is a good example of the issue at hand and its effect on weakening the ecosystem of OER. As a long standing proponent of Free Software and the principles behind OER, I would like the work that I do to be available to the community. I believe that I can produce things of value, especially to learners in South Africa. The OER community disallows this because they are afraid that someone will misue their resources.
I work through my company, Kenga Solutions, and I want to make some educational videos that are suited to the SA syllabus. have a small budget from a client for doing this. As a contributor to FOSS since 1996, and to open content since 1997, I had a reasonable expectation that I would be able to find some FREE content resources that I could remix to match the SA syllabus. I could not find ANYTHING outside of Wikipedia. It looks like I will have to pay license fees for commercial content, and this will mean that the resources that I produce will have to be copyright. This means that I cannot contribute them to the OER community, and everyone except the holders of the content that I will have to license is a loser. Certainly, education is a loser.
The non-free, non-open source NC restriction prevents me from making a contribution to education just because I am a company and I might want to use the same resources on my company's educational technology. But, as a company, I can give back to education, but I AM NOT ALLOWED TO by the non-free license of 99% of so-called OERs.
This is not about me. It is about the ecosystem, and refusing to live a life in fear. I think more good can come out of chosing to live in freedom than chosing to live in fear. The world will be a better place, and if there is occasional misuse, the free license can just as well be used to stop that as the NC restriction. But the NC restriction kills both good and evil intent dead.
I use the word 'evil' because it expresses how strongly I feel that we will NEVER build a genuinely free educational culture if people hold back on the very thing that gives it value out of fear for the generally low probability that it will wrongly used. Here 'evil' means substantially less than good. Perhaps that word is wrong, but hopefully it makes people think.