#openedMOOC Week 2: Copyright, the Public Domain, and the Commons

An infographic created by Shihaam Donnelly from http://www.jlsu.se/ict-in-school/ict-in-school-part-12-create-infographics/ 

This week’s videos and readings are a lot more interesting than I anticipated.

David Wiley and George Siemens introduce the topic in an informative three part video in which they point out (as does Stephen Downes in his video) that whereas in the past a resource creator had to register for a copyright/patent, these days anything that can be fixed in tangible form is automatically copyrighted at the point of creation and anything created is owned. As Stephen Downes points out, this begs the question of what is not owned – Ideas? Software? Algorithms? How does something come to be in the public domain?

This question led to a discussion of the meaning of the Commons and the idea that a resource can be shared in common, i.e. a resource is managed collectively by the community. For example, a village green could be used by any member of the community for the grazing of stock and collectively cared for by the community. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is that they tend to become abused, closed and controlled by people whose self-interest works against the common good. This is not only seen on village greens and the like, but also in education settings even in those environments which claim to be open. For example people in networks tend to gather in groups/cliques which, whether intending to or not, can exclude. Elinor Ostrom points out that exclusion of beneficiaries is costly and that ultimately the short-term interests of a few are not in anyone’s long-term interest. It seems then that it’s likely that if we hold a resource in common, someone will abuse it and the question of ownership will never be very far away.

So the question, why should you share, remains an important one.  Why shouldn’t the original creator of a resource retain ownership of his/her creation? These questions stir up a lot of emotion and controversy as seen in some of the readings suggested for this week.

Karl Fogel has suggested that we should now be living in a post-copyright world. He writes:

But now that the Internet has given us a world without distribution costs, it no longer makes any sense to restrict sharing in order to pay for centralized distribution. Abandoning copyright is now not only possible, but desirable. Both artists and audiences would benefit, financially and aesthetically. In place of corporate gatekeepers determining what can and can’t be distributed, a much finer-grained filtering process would allow works to spread based on their merit alone. We would see a return to an older and richer cosmology of creativity, one in which copying and borrowing openly from others’ works is simply a normal part of the creative process, a way of acknowledging one’s sources and of improving on what has come before. And the old canard that artists need copyright to earn a living would be revealed as the pretense it has always been.

This stirred up a hornet’s nest with some angry responses in the many comments that his article generated e.g.

Sorry, I am a creative professional. I would, and will copyright my work. Yes I want to get paid for it. It’s my job why shouldn’t I? I think it’s dumb to just give away everything you work hard for. That is what you are doing when you choose to not protect your work. You leave it open for everyone including pirates.

I have cherry-picked from the comment here, but I think it illustrates that ‘open, free, sharing’ is not desired by all.

Richard Coyne in a recent post which I came across via my colleague Mariana Funes, discusses the criticism that the sharing economy has come under lately  He writes:

The darkest side of this sharing narrative is that consumers and the short-term contracted labour force are fed the idea that they are participating in a new democratised economic order. The sharing economy is just part of a sales pitch, and a way of dressing up inequities and dodgy business practices.

The first line of a Guardian article written by Stephen Poole in April 2016 is:

 ‘Sharing’ is one of the most rhetorically abused virtues of the age.

But Coyne in his post continues:

At best, it [the sharing economy] entails a raft of technologies and business practices that disrupt some of the usual ways of thinking about work, service, and the economy. That can’t be all bad.

He thinks that maybe the idea of a sharing economy is not served by naming it as such. I have also often thought that the idea of sharing is not well served by the language that is sometimes used to discuss it, e.g. sharing = caring etc. There needs to be more balance between the rhetoric and the reality of what ‘sharing’ means.

A way of retaining ownership and control over how, and under what terms your ‘creation’ is shared is through the use of Creative Commons copyright Licenses.  In a video created by Henry Trotter from the University of Cape Town (see Week 2 content), he points out that copyright can be different and mean different things according to where you live. David Wiley and George Siemens see Creative Commons licenses as a means of overcoming these differences and making the whole process of sharing resources a lot easier, since you then don’t have to seek permission from the original creators. I have a copyright license on this blog and also on my Flickr site, but I don’t monitor this and I’m not convinced that people coming to these sites adhere to the copyright license. I am sometimes contacted about use of my photos and I always say yes, even if the required use doesn’t match my license. And I know from the blog stats that some posts are used in closed courses, i.e. I can’t actually see how they are being used as I don’t have a password for the course.

But there are things that I don’t share. I am very selective about what personal information I share and I am very careful about sharing information in the open about my family. I find the common habit of openly sharing information about young children, presumably without their knowledge, concerning.  I also don’t often share research in progress, unless I am doing a public presentation about it and then I will put a Creative Commons License on it, but I always try to publish in open journals. I agreed with pretty much everything David and George said in their video about the nonsense of publishing in closed journals with no payment, only to be charged to distribute your own work.

For academics and educators probably the most difficult area of all this is ownership of ideas. Thomas Jefferson’s writing captures the issue so well (from one of this week’s reading). James Boyle quotes him as saying:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possess the less, because every other possess the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

This makes perfect sense to me, but it also means that I need to be circumspect about the ideas I openly share. As my parents used to say to me – ‘If in doubt – don’t!’ Sharing is a choice – hopefully an informed choice.

What poets can tell us about ‘openness’ and ‘sharing’

The ModPo MOOC (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) is surprising me in many ways, but mostly because in the poems we have studying in Weeks 1 and 2, there seem to be so many connections with my research into online teaching and learning.

I have already made two posts about how these poems have given me new perspectives on emergent learning  and ‘presence’  in online environments.

This week I have realised that I now also have a new perspective on the meaning of ‘openness’.

MOOCs themselves are all about openness, but I didn’t expect poetry to be too.

MOOCs, in their original conception, were intended to be free and open to anyone with an internet access. No registration or ‘signing up’ was required and it was expected that participants would ‘openly’ share their knowledge, expertise, ideas and thinking in the course. Resources would also be openly shared with the possibility of aggregation, remixing, repurposing and feeding forward.

Stephen Downes (who with George Siemens gave us the world’s first MOOC in 2008) has written about openness as follows (blue font is mine):

Openness — the network should have inputs and outputs, content should flow freely through the system, constrained only by the individual decisions of the entities, and entities themselves should flow freely into and out of connective relationships with others. Openness enables the possibility of perception by the network, and fluidity of connection enables the possibility of learning and adaptation.

The system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize openness. People should be able to freely enter and leave the system, and there ought to be a free flow of ideas and artifacts within the system. This is not to preclude the possibility of privacy, not to preclude the possibility that groups may wish to set themselves apart from the whole; openness works both ways, and one ought to be able to opt out as well as in. But it is rather to say that the structure of the system does not impede openness, and that people are not by some barrier shut out from the system as a whole. (Source: Huffington Post)

Openness is about possibility. And here begins the connections I have seen with the poetry we have been reading in ModPo.

Emily Dickinson ‘dwells in possibility’. She is ‘open’ to new ways of thinking, the sky is the limit, but she does have some conditions as to who can share in these. Only those who are willing to put in the work to understand her poetry can join her. This suggests a link between openness and hard work.

Walt Whitman, in his poem – Song of Myself –  is ‘open’ to all, with no selection. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can join Walt in his poetry. For him ‘openness’ relates to ‘all inclusive’, a bit like how ModPo has opened its doors to poets and non poets alike, and every level of expertise, interest and experience in between. BUT – even Walt cannot avoid selection. Every act of representation is an act of selection. So openness is not a free for all or value free.

Lorine Niedecker in her poem ‘Grandfather advised me’ –  relates to this idea. For Lorine ‘less is more’. By condensing her writing to eliminate anything unnecessary or superfluous, even punctuation, she opens up the poem to a wealth of variable meanings. She has not spelled it out for us.  She does not even have a full stop at the end of her poem – the possibilities are infinite.

I learned to sit at desk and condense (Lorine Niedecker)

I think Stephen Downes has understood the ‘less is more’ connection to openness – when he writes that in his courses, it is not the content that is important, but the process, which is much more important than the content.

Cid Corman in his poem It isn’t for want  also teaches us about openness. He too understands that it not the content of his poetry that is important, but the communication, the connection between meaning maker and receiver. Openness is not only about the ability to be ‘open’ but to communicate this in such a way that it can be received. ‘I exist because you exist’ to quote Al Filreis.

Of all these ideas, I love the idea that ‘less is more’ in relation to openness. It seems so counter-intuitive, and so unlike many of the ideas that have been espoused by various bloggers/writers, who equate ‘openness’ with more, more and yet more ‘sharing’.

Sharing as accountability

This was the title of a talk given by Dean Shareski to ETMOOC last week.  Dean is always entertaining to listen to and for me there is no doubting his sincerity and passion for his belief in sharing as accountability.

But Dean and I don’t really see eye to eye about sharing as accountability, as testified by the discussion generated by this blog post more than a year ago.

From his talk to ETMOOC, I don’t think either of us have shifted our positions that much, although in this talk he did not explicitly mention sharing as a moral imperative  and he did ask participants what the dangers of sharing might be.

Dangers of Sharing

However, at one point, he still said ‘You should feel guilty if you are not sharing anything’. Is there a hint of taking the moral high ground there? To be fair I think these comments are usually made (but not always) in the context of teaching. As David Wiley has evidently said, it is pretty impossible to teach without sharing.

But do we have a common understanding of what we mean by sharing?

  • sharing as a reciprocal relationship involving mutuality and interdependence?
  • sharing of thoughts and feelings in social communication?
  • sharing as altruistic giving and distribution?

Interesting is a summary of Peter Corning’s book ‘Nature’s Magic: Synergy In Evolution And the Fate of Humankind’, where Corning writes:

Work by Gintis, Bowes, Fehr and  Gächter indicate that strong reciprocity among humans is egoistic, not altruistic or cooperative, and depends on aggressive punishment of cheaters.

So maybe sharing is not all it is cracked up to be?

I should stress that I am not anti-sharing. More that I think it important to take an informed and balanced approach to the practice of sharing, such as found in the discussions around cooperation and collaboration, for example by


All this is on my mind because of the work I am doing on Howard Rheingold’s Towards a Literacy of Cooperation course and my thinking about how sharing, cooperation and collaboration inform each other. I will be surprised if I come out this course without having undergone a shift in my understanding, so maybe the next time I see/listen to Dean talk it will be through a different lens.

The Tyranny of Sharing

I have really enjoyed listening to Erik Duval this week in his presentation to ChangeMOOC   on Learning in Times of Abundance

I was particularly interested in Erik’s second presentation where he described how his students are required to comment on each other’s blogs – to be ‘open’, ‘to share’.  His approach is – ‘if you can’t /won’t  agree to this, then don’t sign up for my course. Evidently, this is what learning in times of abundance means. But not for me 🙂

Erik also referred us to Dean Shareski’s video from his keynote presentation ‘Sharing: The Moral Imperative’

That word ‘moral’ made my ears prick up and I have to say my hackles rise. I hate being lectured about morality and I long ago decided that ‘duty’ is a word that I do not wish to include in my vocabulary – at least not in reference to my own actions. If I am going to do something it has to be because I believe it to be the right thing to do – not from a sense of duty which could be misplaced.

Despite this – there is lots about Dean’s video that is inspiring on quite a few fronts – but not all 🙂

His starting point is that he personally  is a giant derivative of his network – because each and every one of his network embraces a culture of sharing, he benefits.  Well – yes, I can see how much I have benefited from the open sharing of others, but at times I have also been ‘led up the garden path’ as we say in the UK.

He then goes on to say that the entire premise on which education is built is sharing and that if there is no sharing there is no education – not learning please note, but education – and he appears to equate education with teaching and vice versa – so I wonder where is learning positioned in this.

According to Dean a sharing culture begs the questions:

  • Is it safe
  • Is it worthwhile
  • Is it valuable/meaningful
  • Is it an obligation

… we need also to consider who, where and how we share – which all seems reasonable.

According to one speaker on the video – sharing (online) can mean that the time spent on developing a resource is more cost efficient because it is shared with numerous people on the net. That seems fair enough if you have bought into the sharing mantra.

According to another, sharing means that we can share in people’s experiences and lives, people who we would not meet face-to face. That also seems fair enough, although whether you want to it a different matter.

Alan Levine has shared ‘Amazing Stories of Openness’  – http://cogdogblog.com/stuff/opened09/

My response to all this and to Erik Duval is that this is great for those who wish to do it.

What about those who are introverts?

What about those who wish to protect their privacy (I wonder what Jabiz’ 4 year old daughter Kaia will say, when she is old enough to understand, about her father taking the decision to share her life with the world when she was not old enough to question it)? (see Dean’s video)

What about learner autonomy?

What about those who wish to resist the power and control of educators/teachers  who  exert a tyranny of participation?

What about those who do not wish to live their lives in a fish bowl (thanks to vhaustudent for this image)?

I for one reject the obligation to share (not sharing itself, but the obligation to share), the obligation to help others, the idea that I owe it to others , that it is an ethical responsibility.

If I do share in any way it is not because of a moral imperative, but simply because I believe that is the right thing to do at that particular time in that particular context – i.e. as I have mentioned before I am ‘selfish’ in my sharing – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-selfish-blogger-syndrome/  and I strongly believe that people have the right to resist comments like ‘sharing is a moral imperative’ or ‘lurking = taking’ and work out for themselves, without being subjected to power influences or controls what sharing means to them.