Friday, March 28, 2008

oer - copyright discussion - week 4

This week we are looking at the history of copyright, how it is being expanded in modern times, and how the use of creative commons and similar licences can help in the creation of an alternative to copyright, a “commons” of material available for use. This commons can include free and open educational resources.

An argument that is often heard in favour of copyright is that without copyright artists, authors and similar would not be rewarded for creating their works. Like all good arguments there is an element of truth in this but it was interesting to read in the history of copyright that the first common-law forms of protection actually protected publishers and not authors. In some ways the wheel seems to have turned full circle, again protecting the corporate owners rather than the authors of works. As Lawrence Lessig points out, modern copyright in the USA protects a work for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. It is hard to see what interest a dead creator of a work has in continuing to own copyright!

It is not in itself problematic to grant certain rights to the creator and owner of a “work”. That they are able to benefit from their work is only fair, but if that protection becomes too comprehensive then it hinders the creation of new works. Our previous reading (Standing on the Shoulders of Giants) and Lawrence Lessig's presentation points out that all new “works” are built upon what went before them. If creators are denied the right to use what went before then this hinders them in their act of creation. The difference between “copying” and “creative derivation” is not always obvious. Lessig’s example of the Disney Corporation’s careful guarding of their creations from any form of copying or derivative use shows how copyright can be used to frustrate development. That many of Disney’s creations were built upon material in the public domain, and that Disney has effectively removed aspects of this material from the public domain makes matters even more frustrating!

The creation of open resources, with creative commons licences, bypasses this copyright problem. It gives the author/owner certain rights, ensures that the material cannot be destructively copyrighted and at the same time allows for the creative cycle to continue, building upon the work in question. Bissell and Boyle in "Towards a Global Learning Commons: ccLearn" point out in the importance of licences being compatible if the work is to be reused. I have already come across this problem. I moved some of my photographs from Flickr to Wikiversity and found that not all levels of CC licences used in Flickr were accepted in Wikiversity.

Bissell and Boyle also divided OER into levels – their lowest level, minus one(!) is interestingly numbered. The use of “minus” shows that this level of openness is not really very useful, even if it is better than nothing! The problems of incompatibility that they raise have also appeared in the work of CFL in Sweden. CFL’s materials repository has been created over the last five years and ensuring compatibility with other repositories and with learning platforms has been an ongoing work!

Rose has already written about Swedish copyright laws in her posting so I won't repeat that. However, I will mention a couple of other points. Swedish law allows for the limited non-commercial copying of CD’s and DVD’s under a “personal use” definition. If I wish to make a copy of a CD and give it to a friend I can do that legally. This right is rather restricted and a special duty on copying mediums (blank CD’s and DVD’s) pays for this right.

Sweden also has a rather well-developed sense of the value of the commons, traditionally rooted in the right of free access to the countryside, laws restricting the privatisation of water-side land and a sense that culture in all its forms should be available, freely or at an affordable price. Perhaps this is why it is estimated that between 10 and 15% of the Swedish population downloads copyrighted material via internet (voting with their feet for affordable culture!). The Swedish government has been reluctant to pass a law effectively criminalising this large section of the population and most people in Sweden see little point in trying to prevent the unpreventable. This perhaps explains the existence of the Pirate Bay in this otherwise very law-abiding country!


JLH said...

'It is hard to see what interest a dead creator of a work has in continuing to own copyright!"
I would think the dead creator's family should be interested in retaining the copyright.
This would enable the author's surviving spouse or offspring to benefit from royalty cheques for the work, or (if the work was not yet published) allow the family to publish the work and receive financial compensation for the author's efforts (which could have been years of writing work while the other spouse supported the family).
It's a very interesting question.

Isä said...

Janet: Good points. What do you think, for how long one should then have a right to benefit out of their grandfathers’ creative works? The question is problematic because the “work” is not just heritage (such as money or physical property) but something that when it is kept only in the hands of the family, it may slowdown the general economical, social and cultural development. If we think about technology, we could still all drive a T-Ford model if the Ford family would have guaranteed a patent for the automobile that is forever. Why the Ford family would have developed the T-Ford if they could simply keep on selling it for the new generations?

Have you seen the movie About a Boy ( It is a great movie and related to this theme too.

JLH said...

It's a complex issue, which is probably why there is so much debate on this topic. I'm not an expert, but I can understand both points of view on the issue.
I saw "About a Boy." It's a great movie, and I'd forgotten that the Hugh Grant character was living off the wealth generated by a Christmas song (I think?) written by his father or grandfather(?).
Here's an interesting link to a Wikipedia article on the US Copyright Term Extension Act which offers the views of proponents and opponents of this act. One of the arguments for extension is the increasing life expectancy of people.