#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.

Tragedy of the Commons

Week 4 in Howard Rheingold’s  Towards a Literacy of Cooperation course focuses on The Commons and Institutions for Collective Action.

The Tragedy of the Commons is the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long-term best interests. In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin explored this social dilemma in “The Tragedy of the Commons”, published in the journal Science.

For an understanding of what this means, play this simple game which emphasizes the occurrence of Tragedy of the Commons in a public setting.

Hardin believed in the inevitability of people despoiling common pool resources through self-interest and argued strongly for population control, ending his paper with the following sentences:

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity” — and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

But Elinor Ostrom did not agree. Through extensive research into examples of the use of common pool resources such as fishing, water and forestry, she concluded that a significant minority of groups will find ways to manage the commons and overcome social dilemmas. Humans do not have to be prisoners of the Prisoner’s Dilemma – they can break out of becoming their own jailors.

Ostrom identified eight design principles of stable local common pool resource management

  • Group boundaries are clearly defined.
  • Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
  • Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  • The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
  • A system for monitoring member’s behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
  • A graduated system of sanctions is used. (Shame and rewards  have been found to be effective in policing the commons.)
  • Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
  • For common-pool resources that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

Ostrom also came up with a simple matrix to explain the relationship between private goods, public goods, common goods and club goods and defines what she means by the commons in this short video

Excludable Non-excludable
Rivalrous Private goods
food, clothing, cars, personal electronics
Common goods (Common-pool resources)
fish stocks, timber, coal
Non-rivalrous Club goods
cinemas, private parks, satellite television
Public goods
free-to-air television, air, national defense

Peter Kollock believed that a Prisoner’s Dilemma is a result of mistrust.  An assurance of trust can transform a social dilemma into a stag-hunt

Some people are, by nature, more likely to trust others. In order to solve both the first-order dilemma (how to agree to organize collective action) and the second order dilemma (who’s going to police the agreement), you need both kinds of people: the more trusting people are necessary in order to make an agreement, and the less trusting people are necessary in order to police the agreement.

A wonderful example of a how a group of students used their understanding of these principles and game theory to get the best exam result for the whole cohort has recently been published by the New York Times

So it seems that Elinor Ostram’s faith in the ability of humans to cooperate was not misplaced.