Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Will Richardson’s Business Model

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 01, 2006

Originally posted on Half an Hour, August 1, 2006.

Will Richardson writes: "I don’t mind people quoting my blog in their own or using any other of the content that I create to inform their own work. But this bothers me. Someone has decided to simply use my RSS feed and that of about a dozen other edbloggers to create a “river of news” page upon which to sell ads and, I would guess, make money on our ideas. No idea who this is… Should I care?"

Tom Hoffman responds, "Uh… dude. If it bothers you, you should stop licensing your work under Creative Commons and stop raving about Lawrence Lessig all the time."

He adds on his website, "Isn’t it also true that Will’s blog can’t use other people’s by-nc-ca content either, since it also has ads? Nor can David Warlick’s blog, as it has advertisting for his books and is generally part of his commercial enterprise. Tim Lauer has an ad."

The suggestion here is that the NC condition is so vague it can't be understood and should hence simply be abandoned. "I’d say whatever Will isn’t selling he should give away, but give away freely."

So far as I can tell, neither Will Richardson nor Tim Lauer use other people's work in violation of an NC clause. Sure, they quote other people's work and link to it from time to time, but that does not constitute 'use', it constitutes 'reference'. There is a significant difference, one which is captured in the doctrine of fair dealing (in Canada) or fair use (in the US).

As for me, Hoffman writes, "What about Stephen Downes? How much paid work has resulted from his blog? Is he untainted? Do we need to examine his tax return? My point here is not that we all ought to be working for free, but that these non-commercial content licenses are terribly vague, and in my opinion for that reason should be avoided."

I am certainly not going to worry about whether I am 'tainted'. My 'business model' has always been clear, and is certainly not a secret. And my 'use' of other people's work arguably falls under the domain of 'reference' rather than 'use' (though one might want to quibble about Edu_RSS, though since it publishes short excerpts only, and not entire articles, is probably safe under the same legal precedent that protects search engines).

But (as anyone who actually looks into this knows) in fact I do not obtain "paid work" from my blog. I certainly receive offers. But as an employee of the National Research Council, part of the government of Canada, I would be in breach of conflict of interest legislation. When I do external work, I do not charge any fees (form example, I charge no fees for my presentations, or for consulting on software, publishing articles, etc).

To take the other side of this now, my work is certainly 'used' and not merely cited. Commercial use of my work (and this typically includes academic journals, commercial websites, books, etc.) requires permission from the National Research Council of Canada. My website allows non-commercial use and some software is available by GPL, a condition that NRC has tolerated but doesn't exactly enthuse over. With others at NRC, I am working to increase the agencies open publishing and GPL practices.

Some of my content is reused on a commercial basis, though not by edutechtalk. My site has been syndicated by NewsIsFree since the late 1990s, despite the oxymoronic name of that site. More recently it has been picked up by Technology4Teachers, an annoyance mostly because it messes up my Technolorati listings. Funny that Technolorati doesn't use the 'wisdom of crowds' to weed out such echo blogs. My worked is aggregated by Yahoo!, Bloglines, and other commercial aggregation services.

The suggestion in this post is twofold: first, that I should get hot under the collar about such obvious and flagrant violations of my license conditions, and second, that I should abandon such conditions, because they are too vague. Some services that use my work may be 'tainted' by their making of money in one way or another.

First of all, life is too short to be bothered by such things. The sites out there that flagrantly violate my license are very obvious to my reader and others. They reveal through their own actions that they are not to be trusted (perhaps something that Google's search engine doesn't recognize yet, but that's Google's issue, not mine).

As Janice Friesen says on Will Richardson's site, "I NEVER take this type of site too seriously. If someone wants to do a service by collecting the information in one place they should identify themselves and their biasses. I think this is all a part of contemporary literacy that we so desperately need to be educating kids (and teachers and other adults)about."

But the main issue is whether I should simply abandon my license. I should, it seems, either change the conditions to allow such licensing, or I should pursue the instances of violation and get them to stop.

This is to misunderstand the principles of content licensing, at least, the principles as they should be, and not the principles that have been corrupted by a litigous and self-serving publishing industry and so-called 'information economy'.

What I have done with my license is to express what I want, to express how I would like my content treated. Sure, there is recourse under law, as there is recourse under law for many things. But it is hardly a practical recourse, nor a reasonable recourse.

I have also in my life expressed other desires. For example, I have from time expressed the desire to be treated nicely. I have expressed the desire that people tell the truth. I have asked that people be courteous to me.

True, sometimes these requests are vague. Precision is for lawyers. It's for people who are trying to obtain the maximum benefit, without any real regard to my interests or desires. If someone finds a loophole in the wording of my wishes, and exploits that, they demonstrate that althought they can read and infer, they don't care about what I actually want.

We learn a lot about the actions of such people. Vagueness is what allows a person's charater to emerge. If Will Richardson, for example, want to use my materials, and if he wasn't sure about whether it would be all right with me, he wouldn't parse my license, he would ask me. Because he values his relationship with me more than he does the money he might earn in this instance.

For me, like for everyone else, there are those inconsiderate boobs who lie to me and treat me as though I were beneath them. People who don't ask, who just assume. Who behave dishonestly out of some sort o self-intrest, financial or otherwise, rather than taking what I want into consideration.

This bothers me, as it should. And I am not going to change that; why should I give up on my self-respect because others behave badly? I will continue to want to be told the truth, because that is what I want. The people who think they can just push their way around and act with no consideration for who I am and what I want cannot be allowed to define for me what is right and what is wrong, what I want and what I don't.

True, I don't sue such people. I don't take them to court when they lie to me, at least, not unless there was significant material harm caused by the lie. As I said above, life is too short.

But I don't embrace their behaviour either. When people lie to me, when people disrepect my wishes, when people use my content in violation of my license, they harm themselves because I will have nothing to do with them, I will not recommend them, and I will not trust them. And when such people do the same to others, again, they harm themselves, because people like me will have nothing to do with them.

Sometimes it may appear that dishonesty and disrespect prosper, especially in an increasingly anonymous society. The person who has cut into line ahead of you may appear to have gained something at your expense. My my belief is that a life led thusly is not one that profits. It is a life led solitary and alone. The essence of living in a community is to respect the interests, rights and desires of the other members. Those who disregard that essence soon find themselves excluded from the community, and from the benefits to be derived from the community.

And these benefits, I might add, go well beyond merely financial gain (and we blind ourselves if we limit ourselves to looking at money). Reputation, for example: as Audrey Hill says, "The more you give away, the more your reputation is assured. And paradoxically, the more your reputation is assumed." And mutual support. And friendship. And sharing. And loyalty.

Jym Brittain, from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, for example, simply copies my website and makes a few pennies from the Google ad. But what is his standing in the educational community? What is his relation with the rest of us? How much does he participate in the dialogue, the discussion, and indeed even the joy and accomplishment felt by those who, together, achieve?

None of it. None. Whatever it is that prompts a person to behave dishonestly, it isn't worth it. Never.

That's why I don't have to take action, and why it is important that I not abandon those desires, needs and values that I express on my website, either as a Creative Commons license or as any other part of my work.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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