Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A creative commons quandary

Over the past few weeks I have been participating in the OER  online course organised by Wayne Mackintosh, founder of WikiEducator.  Although I thought I was pretty au fait with copyright issues, having spent six years working in the publishing industry, I discovered some gaping holes in my knowledge, especially around the use of so-called public domain artworks. What has really challenged me though, hasn’t been the information around copyright or creative commons. Instead, the course has forced me to rethink my views on the ownership and sharing of knowledge.

While still in SA, I worked in the textbook industry and authored a number of senior- and high-school textbooks, some of which have been in print for 9 years. I have enjoyed a small but steady income from those books, and the royalty payments have always been very welcome. Sometimes, content from the books has been re-licensed for other uses, and I have received additional payments whenever that that has happened. Again, financially insignificant, but all part of a much bigger money-making industry. (In my case, 12% of net profit on each title is shared among the authors of the title… fair for the industry. So 88% of the net profit went to the publishing company itself. Not bad really!)

What I am being forced to reflect upon, however, is:  do I have the right to ownership at all? Remember these works are not creative, original works out of my imagination; they are textbooks, so they are compendiums of knowledge that already exists. Of course, the way I presented and unpacked that information was  (I hope) uniquely my own work, but can I really place restrictions on people reusing what I have written on market systems; economic cycles and the like? I’m not sure that I can. That information existed before I put it down on paper.  At the same time, if it wasn’t for the large publishing industry, much of that information would never have reached the classroom at all. (Bear in mind that this was in South Africa, where access to electricity isn’t a given, and the printed word is still often the only way school children can find information.) It’s a debate with no easy answer. Publishing companies have done a world of good whilst making money out of their ownership of knowledge, but where do their rights end? Should access to knowledge really be determined by one’s ability to pay for it?

For me, the answer is easy (especially since I no longer work in the industry.) Work that I produced outside of my paid employment (that is covered by a legal contract) will always be licensed CC-BY.  Having had my own work copied and passed off as someone else’s, and having seen it done repeatedly by others, I know the importance of acknowledging one’s sources. It really hurts when people don’t acknowledge their sources. I would like people to say, ‘Jean was part of this…’.  It would even be nice if they dropped me an email and told me what they were doing with it. But if they can make money from it, all power to them.

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