Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Copyright: Fundamental gap?

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 03, 2002


I think that the discussion of copyright in the previous Online Learning E-News expressed throughts from a very narrow perspective.

This perspective is perhaps best illuminated with a set of questions directly related to the issues but which remain unanswered by the discussion:

1. Why do we assume that the best approach to content reuse is to research the ownership of each piece of material? Yes, I know that there is probably a long and convoluted ownership trail to follow. But requiring that developers take such a path adds substantially to the cost of developing learning materials - and this even if the borrowed content is free for use! Wouldn't a much better answer have been: don't bother using the content - it will take much to much of your limited time to sort out.

2. Why would it matter if the publisher of the original work - which you created using work for hire - is "affronted?" This would matter only if you signed ownership of the copyright to the publisher. But wouldn't it make better sense to publish only with publishers that do not demand to own the content and are happy merely to have license to print the material?

3. Why does Dennis Hallawell say that "Good content is valuable." Much good content - such as Linux, the Apache Web Server, the SAP open source database, even (so humbly) my articles - is free. And much content that is expensive is not good (good breeding precludes me from naming examples). The cost of content has nothing to do with quality; it has everything to do with the monopolization of supply and the willingness to pay.

4. Why does Hallawell assume that content that is given away for free has little or no value? It is true (but not even likely, as companies as diverse as Red Hat and Baen Publishing have shown) that it may not return any direct remuneration. But free content has been shown to be exceptionally valuable in terms of brand recognition, establishment of credentials, and attraction of subsequent business (indeed - since I received hallawell's comments in a free newsletter - which, presumably, he also contributed for free - should I then assume that his opinion is of no value?).

5. Why does the production of quality free content require that "you get great developers to work for little or nothing?" A lot of advertising - the EDS 'herding cats' commercial, for example, could qualify as great content. But EDS was giving it away (heck, they were paying other people to give it away). But surely their developers worked at above minimum wage. There are many ways to profit from content - advertsing is only one example - without actually deriving an income from the content.

6. Which is just as well, because the article completely ignores the reams of quality, free-for-use content widely available on the internet. Content which surely reduces the value of any for-pay content simply through the economics of supply and demand. These days, if you pay for content, you are really only paying for the convenience of not having to look for it.

7. Why is the Saudi reader enquiring about copyright referred to U.S. copyright law? Is there some aspect of Saudi soverignity that is new to us? Or is there an assumption - very incorrect - that all countries comply with U.S. copyright law?

8. Or even that they ought to?

9. Why is the reference to Saudi copyright law incorrect when a 5 second Google search reveals that "The Royal Decree No. 11/M dated 19.5.1410 (AH) governs the protection of copyright in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has joined the Universal Copyright Convention as of July 13, 1994." See also (I won't rub in the fact that the Google search was free)

10. Why is there no mention of lawrence Lessig, opposition to copyright law, open source and open content, the open archives initiative, OKI and MIT's free online courses and more?

There is so much more people could do than to lamely comply with existing law. I am not advocating that people break the law. But there is no reason to blithely go along with the assumptions and the structures that inform current law. In short:

  • Don't use content that requires that you enter the legal morass
  • Use free content, and don't pay for content unless you must
  • Don't sign away your own copyright to publishers
  • Don't depend on content for revenue - it's a fool's game
  • Look for alternative revenue streams - they exist!
  • Make your own content available for free (but keep paying your developers)
  • Express your opposition to a legal regime that makes it cumbersome and expensive to publish even the shortest course

-- Stephen

Please note that the views expressed in this email are amost certainly not those of my employer.

Stephen Downes ~ Senior Researcher ~ National Research Council
Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

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