What I thought of the readings:
Being a wanna-be art historian and librarian, I was admittedly more interested in the open access (rather than open source) portion of the readings this week. However, some of the same issues clearly come up in both realms–the questions of ownership of “intellectual property”, free knowledge exchange, the overreach of copyright or patents, and the role of for-profit companies in IP law, etc.
I enjoyed Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture which argues that our once free culture is rapidly becoming a “permission culture.” The exchange of ideas which used to be part and parcel of the way we communicate, share, and generate culture is threatened by powerful companies whose commercial interests run counter to this model. Lessig asserts that because this cultural exchange is now more public, recordable, and effortless due to the advent of the internet, companies have severely ramped up their efforts to strengthen laws which protect so-called intellectual property. He points out that copyright trolls like Disney–by pushing for ever longer and more stringent copyright protection–not only affect their own proprietary works, but all works that fall under copyright legislation, in essence, affecting all cultural objects. The original intent of copyright–to ensure that the creator could make a reasonable profit for a few years, and then, by design, open the work up for the public’s benefit–has essentially been thrashed by these companies. Fair use, which is extremely ill-defined anyway, does not seem to be a sufficient defense.
Veering slightly (and delightfully) into hyperbole, Lessig compares the ever-more extremist copyright climate to the system of feudalism, in which a relatively small number of individuals or entities own all property, and which depends on maximum control and little freedom. He implores government to resist the pull of large corporations and to preserve the tradition of free culture. He advocates a “middle way” between “all rights reserved” and “no rights reserved” which gives creators freedom to distribute their works as they see fit. Implied in Lessig’s title Free Culture is not just the adjective free as in “free speech, not free beer”, but also the verb “to free.” Lessig wants us to unshackle our cultural objects and traditions.
Steering clear of the thorny territory of for-profit content, Elena Giglia and Peter Suber explore the meaning and implications of Open Access (OA) in the scholarly world. OA literature is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” Importantly, however, OA does not give a free pass to plagiarism–in this model, the author is always credited for his or her work. Suber (whose book is ironically not totally open as of yet), argues that OA is basically a no-brainer for the scholarly arena. He asserts that scholars are uniquely situated to benefit from open access, as their work model has never rested upon being paid for selling content; rather, they are paid a salary by universities or grant-funders to research, peer review, and publish in the normal course of their work. Scholars benefit in their careers when their works have maximum impact and citations; the larger audience and heightened visibility facilitated by the OA model, then, greatly benefits them.
My one question about this model (which is perhaps answered in one of Suber’s chapters that is not currently open access), is whether this would affect the ability for researchers to use the highly effective search tools provided by databases. If libraries no longer had to pay for access to journals through various databases, how would researchers comb through vast amounts of material without being able to search by keyword, subject, or any number of highly effective limiters? How would they search many works at one time, rather than hunting through each title? Even if every journal I ever wanted to read was freely open on the web, I know I wouldn’t want to be limited to Google or to painstakingly combing through tables of contents. Perhaps someone would make a highly sophisticated (to a higher degree than GoogleScholar) search engine for scholarly research.
Although one would probably have to be an actual programmer to fully appreciate Karl Fogel’s book on avoiding failure in open source projects, I did appreciate his history of open source. The anecdote about disenchanted open-sourcer Richard Stallman creating GNU’s General Public License (GPL) explicitly to stick it to the man was quite entertaining. The GPL asserts that code may be copied or modified without restriction, and that both copies and derivative works must be distributed under the license with no additional restrictions. This license provides protection for free software and disallows the “enemy”–propriety software–from benefiting from it. I also appreciated Fogel’s exploration of the the evolution of the term open source from the formerly used “free software.” Fogel explains that free is a tricky word in English, having no Romantic distinction between gratis and libre; programmers were always having to explain “think free as in freedom – think free speech, not free beer.” More importantly, however, the term open source was easier to pitch to the corporate world, which didn’t associate it with free’s implication of theft, piracy, or not-for-profit.
Trying it out for myself
The Creative Commons licenses are flexible and relatively easy to implement, though I did have to Google how to attach one to my WordPress blog. You can create a CC license similar to the GNU GPL, which allows only open access works to use your work, or simply block commercial users. Importantly, you can also specify who and how to credit. The fact that CC creates a tidy block of code which is easy to copy and paste is convenient, and I of course enjoy the little emblem it creates as well.