The “O” Space

As I have been creating and compiling my final project for Open Educational Resources, the question of copyright has come up several times before we have actually gotten to the subject in our course readings.

I’m not unfamiliar with questions of copyright because part of my work is in educational publishing. In that professional space, permissions is a unique function for textbook publishers who wish to use others’ material in their books or to republish, for example, a storybook for children put out by a trade publisher. For instance, currently I’m wrapping up a book for K–8 teachers on writing research, a resource guide that reprints article excerpts from a number of research studies on children’s writing development, teaching strategies shown to work, writing and technology, and so on. Each has to be permissioned from its originating source, whether an academic journal or a book. Luckily in my role as compiler and editor, I hand off the permissioning function to an outside freelancer who specializes in this area.

I say “luckily” because I find the whole thing sorta boring to me, for the same reason I didn’t follow the other English majors from Washington University to law school after we graduated.

But thinking about copyright, fair use, and all that in the context of OERs is more complicated and thus more interesting. When you publish an OER, the “O” says it all: you have opened up your thoughts and skills to a very wide audience that will do all sorts of things with them you could not have imagined. Unlike a traditional academic publishing model, where there is a sort of weird secrecy about what you’re working on until you actually publish something or present it at a conference, publishing in the “O” space is immediately public. And no matter what, you have absolutely no control over what people do with your content. Put all the licensing options you want on it, it is still electronic and on the Web and by definition is thus easily replicable. Contrasted with a book, which you could only remix and reuse if you retyped the whole thing or photocopied/scanned it, bits and bytes are really easy to reproduce. With CC-BY and other restrictions, unless someone gets caught reusing materials, the originator is left pretty much relying on the goodwill of others, hoping that they honor her wishes as to how “open” the material is. On the other hand, outright stealing is easy to find if you look for it.

A few years ago, I had the experience of catching a plagiarist who was trying to pass off part of a short reader as her own work. The reader was one of the small, paper books typically accompanying large published reading programs for textbook publishers of early grade materials. As I was reading the manuscript, I had that funny feeling seasoned writing teachers get when something about a student’s work just doesn’t feel quite right: you are reading along, and you realize that the voice you had gotten used to somehow…shifted as suddenly the kid writing in simple sentences becomes almost wordy and complex. The little book was about the solar system, and so I typed directly into Google (with surrounding quotation marks) a couple of the sentences that struck me as different from the rest of the book. And lo and behold, I arrived at the PBS website to find several paragraphs of the “original” manuscript.

(As an aside…stealing words from PBS? Like stealing wine from a cathedral: sinful.)

Likewise, if someone used your work on the Web, it maybe pretty easy to find if you have some suspicion it’s out there. But what if they used your work in another context? It would be impossible to attend every lecture, watch every YouTube video, or visit every classroom that might be using your materials. It seems to me that if you publish Internet materials, you have already entered the O space, whether you define your materials as available for remix or reuse or not. It’s a tricky space to be in. In my final OER project I mostly link to other materials, many of which are copyrighted, rather than try to embed them or rework them in some way. To do this is the easy way to acknowledge the creation of others as well as to demonstrate (potentially) how to use them in a context that I am creating, much like academic papers cite sources of other ideas and conclusions.

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