ATD LogoCopyright, Access and Digital Texts

Charles Lowe · 9 December 2003

Table of Contents
. . . the utopian dream of an open source idea economy is the antithesis of the dystopia imagined by content providers.

Sharing Is Best: Openness

Some might suggest piracy as the best alternative method of resistance, a revolt against intellectual property laws in response to a hijacking by the content industries. Our students, outraged at the RIAA and MPAA, see file trading as quid pro quo, a fair deal in return.

I will admit that I privately cheer when the RIAA website is hacked. Consumer rebellion against an industry which has shown itself unconcerned about the needs of both its customers and the artists does seem somehow just. But illegal, retaliatory action can induce like response and raise the ire of the opposing side, making them even more determined.

Piracy, then, is not the answer. However, perhaps the underlying principle of peer-to-peer file trading is: sharing.

The typical three-year-old, when confronted by another child wanting to play with her toy, will yell, "It's mine!" A parent will respond by instructing the child to share. Attempting to instruct all content owners to share would certainly be a waste of breath. But are writing teachers sharing themselves?

In addition to studying the public commons and arguing for its value, educators can also work to expand it by embracing sharing, by contributing content to the open source, open content and open access grass roots movements. By looking briefly at the principles of "openness," writing teachers will see that these movements ideologically parallel our beliefs, that the utopian dream of an open source idea economy is the antithesis of the dystopia imagined by content providers. Writing teachers will come to understand, as Michael Day explains, how "copyleft ensures that works can be shared freely, but that credit is given all those who had a hand in their production" (269). And by learning more about how to use open source and Creative Commons licenses--the tools that counteract the legislated vision for copyright--writing teachers will see how easily they, too, can be open source, open content and open access advocates by simply choosing to license their work.

Open Source and Copyleft

There can be little doubt that one of the major antagonists in the current intellectual property crisis is Microsoft. Their development of Trusted Computing establishes the foundation for a future pay-for-use content economy. And their monopolistic business practices continue to bolster their dominance in the proprietary software market.

So far, the US Justice Department, prosecutors from almost every state, Steve Jobs and Apple, and countless consumer groups have had little effect on diminishing Microsoft's power and often aggressive business activities. But Linux, perhaps the best example of an open source software project, has begun eroding Microsoft's market share at the server level. In the last couple of years, large corporations, such as Merrill Lynch, have turned to Linux as their server platform of choice. Even IBM has committed serious support to developing Linux.

Unlike proprietary software, Linux is not created and maintained by a development team in a corporate lab. The defining instance of the open source developmental model, a project begun in 1991 by Finnish computer science science student Linus Torvalds has turned into the world's largest--and arguably most successful--collaborative project. Thousands of international programmers work together to build and refine Linux, an excellent example of where sharing overwhelmingly prevails as a means of constructing knowledge.

At the heart of the open source development model are the uses granted through open source licenses. Instead of complicated EULA agreements which severely restrict what users can and cannot do with purchased software, users are granted rights to to see the source code, change it, make copies and redistribute either the original program or a modified version. Note, though, that an open source license cannot discriminate among any particular user groups. The same conditions of use are available to all, whether commercial or noncommercial entities. In its pure form, sharing should not be discriminatory.

Linux also owes its success to a very restrictive form of open source license, the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License (GPL). Richard Stallman, creator of the GNU GPL, believes that

Publishers don't have 'an unquestionable natural right to own' and control software ... we have a right to question the type of society that copyright of software creates ... good software can be created under a different production model than one which involves corporate ownership and control (The GNU Operating System).

The GNU GPL follows the definition of open source licenses given above, but it includes one important, additional restriction: anyone redistributing the code, whether a copy of the original or a new version, must distribute it under the GNU GPL. This additional restriction expands the open source definition to copyleft, an ideology which values sharing exclusively over ownership. When a program is published under a copyleft license, the code can never be possessed or owned completely by anyone; all future derivative versions of a program will continue to be available to the community of developers and users with the same rights still intact.

Linux is not the only successful open source project. Other popular examples that writing teachers might be interested in, each using open source licenses designed for its community, include Mozilla, OpenOffice and Darwin.

Open Content

Open content is the application of open source principles to the production of intellectual property other than software: texts, music, video and art. While David Wiley is acknowledged for coining the term in 1988, creating some of the first open content licenses, and promoting the concept, open content has gained much of its popularity with the recent establishment of the open access movement and the work of Creative Commons.

Open Access

Open access, the application of open source principles to the publication of scholarly work, should be a familiar concept to writing teachers since ERIC shares a similar principle: that texts should be accessible to teachers, researchers and the general public. Researchers within the sciences, discouraged by the high cost of scientific journals and the financial exploitation of their articles by their publishers, have pledged to make their texts available online under open content licenses. Scholarly organizations, such as The Public Library of Science(PLoS), PubMed Central and the Budapest Open Access Initiative(BOAI), are working both to convince print publishers to accept open access principles and to create new open access journals themselves.

In explaining the goals of open access, BOAI cites significant reasons which writing teachers ought to agree with:

. . . the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.

Creative Commons

Established in 2001 and motivated to expand the public commons, Creative Commons aims "to build a layer of reasonable, flexible copyright in the face of increasingly restrictive default rules." Their first step has been to create a wide selection of licenses which allow content creators to extend additional rights to readers, listeners and viewers not normally allowed under copyright law. These licenses can be applied to both print and digital texts and are designed for and available to everyone: scholars, teachers, artists, musicians, creative writers, etc.

Realize that these licenses, as with open source licenses for software, are not a substitute for copyright; rather, they are essentially contracts, a predefined set of legal permissions given to the user by the copyright holder.

Nor do all Creative Commons licenses follow the open source definition. Some do not allow derivative works; others prevent commercial use. Creative Commons also provides instructions on surrendering copyright to release content into the public domain.

While at first the various license options may seem confusing, considering a couple of example implementations should make the options a little clearer:

  • Suppose a teacher plans to publish course materials to the web. That teacher might like to let others copy and distribute the text as long as they give attribution, a privilege not accorded by copyright law. But the teacher might also want for others to ask permission before distributing any revised versions, as well as restrict publishers and others from selling part or all of the work. She would create a notice and link on her site to the Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial 1.0 license.
  • Since I am an advocate of copyleft, at the bottom of this page you will find a notice about Creative Commons licensing and a link to the Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license. This text may be redistributed, whether the original version or a derivative one created by you, as long as I am cited as the original author and the text is made available under the same license.

»» Make a Choice