Encouraging sharing without getting all lawyery

August 27, 2009, [MD]

Recently, both Leigh Blackall and Dave Cormier have blogged about OER as the new colonialism, and on both blogs there were lively discussions in the comment sections about what this meant. One of the ideas discussed is that if you try to bring Creative Commons to a context where copyright generally isn't well respected, you first have to teach them to respect copyright.

(Indeed, it's funny, even myself - I shamelessly pirate, and often steal non-open content, but if something is marked as CC ND, I'd never edit it).

To many people, this is problematic, since they are very skeptical to the idea of copyright at all, especially of imposing it on other cultures. (These countries might already have signed on to international treaties that import the legal frameworks, but this might not have done much to affect practice). I've been very sympathetic to this line of thought, and curious about how to resolve this problem.

On the one hand, there is a lot of great material being released "openly" in for example India, Indonesia and China, but none of this material uses an open license, and I would really love if it could. On the other hand, I don't want to try to force some kind of a North-American copyright system on these countries. I tried repeatedly to discuss this distinction with academics in China, but nobody seemed very interested, which was funny.

This came up during my conversation with Leigh Blackall today, when he asked me whether there was a culture of sharing in China already. I replied that it was more a culture of taking, ie. people would be happy to download movies, pirate movies, and take "open educational resources", that didn't have an open license. But I would argue that taking is very different from sharing. Sharing is having the person who created the resource encourage people to take it, and facilitate that. For me, that is one of the most important roles of Creative Commons licenses - not the legal part.

Because as I wrote on Leigh's blog, I can't imagine ever suing anyone for abusing my license, and I certainly don't care if people credit me or not. But by putting a CC license on your material, you tell the world: Yes, this is my gift to you. Take it, please, send it along, enjoy it, have fun with it, and make some stuff yourself to share as well. As I explained to Leigh, when I published a poetry collection with some friends as a 16 year old, we imitated grown ups and put a big Copyright warning on the first page - even though we made no money (nor did we try to), and would have been extremely honored if more people were interested in reading our book. We just hadn't thought about it - it was the thing to do, when publishing a book.

Similar with the Super Notepad program i wrote in Visual Basic 3, I released it as postcard-ware. It's not like I had any interest in hoarding the source code, but I just didn't think about making it open source, because I didn't know there was such a thing. But kids these days do. And when I am giving talks about openness and peer-creation, I don't talk about obscure legal stuff, I show them ccMixter, mashups, Wikipedia articles progressing through time...

So rather than the Chinese and Indian institutions necessarily embracing a specific kind of a copyright license (although there would be certain advantages to that too, from my Western standpoint of someone who wants to reuse their resources), what I most want is for them to actively share their materials, and invite people to reuse them. Implicit in this is to publish the material in an open format - it's very hard to translate your textbook when it's in a PDF!

So during my talk with Leigh it struck me - perhaps we should separate the happy symbol from the legalese, and create a new logo to put on webpages and books, that had no legal significance at all (because as Leigh pointed out, even Public Domain signifies that there is other stuff that is not PD), but which simply says "I actively want to share this material with you, and I encourage you to use it and pass it on. Like a big flower or a sun, or something hippieish...

This is just me thinking aloud. I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing to have copyright - those who believe CC BY Share-Alike is the most open license will not agree, because their share-alike is only protected by copyright - if copyright isn't respected, Share-alike won't be either. But it's an interesting idea, and it was a useful mental exercise for me at least, to separate the legal functions of CC, and the community building, or norming function, which I think iCommons, the iSummits (RIP), ccLearn and all of Lessig's talks have done so well.


Update: I just came back from a nice walk, with these ideas ruminating in my mind. I was thinking about the different between software and cultural creations, and how that might play out differently in licenses - especially related to my last statement that Share-alike fans might not like to abolish copyright.

The difference is access. Richard Stallmann's initial problem with printer drivers or what it was, wasn't about someone prohibiting him from releasing modified copies, it was about getting access to the source code at all... And today in developing countries, of course they can pirate software, but they can't do anything meaningful with it - only make verbatim copies. Whereas with culture, as long as we keep breaking all their DRM, we have full access to anything that is copyrighted. We can mashup their movies, write fanfic about Harry Potter, and "liberate" toll-access academic journals...

All we need is for someone to be able to access the material. And in fact, even a share-alike license doesn't require anyone to make material accessible... So maybe this is the difference, which makes a GPL license really necessary for software, to "force" people to release the source code, but which makes a "pirate as you go" approach viable for culture? (Although I do hate those PDFs...).

Thinking aloud again...

Stian HĂ„klev August 27, 2009 Toronto, Canada
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