As I write this post I realize that I have finally completed a MOOC after many attempts (Open Content Licensing for Educators). I have written several times about why I and thousands of others find it hard to stay the course so it's better to reflect briefly on why I completed this one. Firstly the subject is directly relevant to my work at present and I realised that although I know quite a lot about copyright and Creative Commons there's always more to learn. Secondly the length of course was not so daunting, a mere two weeks. Surely I could fit that into my life. Thirdly, I promised myself that this would be the one I'd complete. In other words the ideal combination of internal and external motivation plus the availability of time.
What have I learnt then?
Online education is virtually impossible if you fully respect copyright laws and the complexities of working in an all-rights-reserved environment are too complex for teachers and students to understand. If full copyright applies a resource is simply locked and without explicit permission you should just link to the resource. The course has confirmed all my suspicions and confusion about copyright and made me even more convinced that as educators we need to show the world what they can and cannot do with our work by marking them clearly as CC.
I also thought that Creative Commons was a user-friendly enhancement and clarification of copyright but I have learnt that it too has its controversies and ambiguities. The main problem area has been the non-commercial condition. I first became convinced that it was a barrier to openness and that the share alike condition would suffice, since it is hard to make money with a resource that you have to share freely. Iam on the verge of changing the CC license on this blog to simply BY-SA. However my course colleague John Edmonstone made a good case for keeping NC by listing a number of valid objections, one of which was:
Any essentially commercial activity is outwith the bounds of the OER community - someone creating materials for profit is not going to share these openly. Therefore the principle of sharing all combinations of OER materials could not be adhered to.
Are we being a little blue-eyed in believing that only responsible educators will be interested in our content and not unscrupulous types out to make a fast buck or two? I fully support the idea that someone, say, in a developing country can earn a little money by repackaging my material (eg making print copies that can be distributed) but the idea that some opportunist could exploit the sharing culture of OER to make a fast profit does not appeal.
I take up these problem areas mostly because I discuss them almost daily at my university with colleagues who have genuine concerns about openness that I can't always answer. I got a question today, for example, asking which CC license would be best for an open access scientific journal. If it doesn't include NC someone could take an author's work and include it in a book without that person getting any royalties.Would a share alike condition be able to prevent this? My colleague argued that maybe a scientific article is such a coherent work that it should not be remixed therefore a stricter BY-NC-ND license would be appropriate. The article may be copied and made freely available but not commercially and only in its original form. Wouldn't remixing a scientific article amount to plagiarism?
The non commercial license has either to be redefined and fully clarified as to exactly what the term means or it should be withdrawn and possible replaced with a less ambiguous restriction. Another post on the course forum refers to a 2012 article by Richard Stallman, On-line education is using a flawed Creative Commons license, in which he argues why CC licenses using NC are flawed. The problem is that almost open licenses such as BY-NC and BY-NC-SA allow derivatives but not in a commercial context. This can lead to many adaptations over the year and then maybe someone wants to use one of these works commercially. Even with NC you are perfectly entitled to approach the author and ask permission; the rules of regular copyright apply here too. But if the work has been remixed several times, who do you ask?
What happens if you would like to use one of those works commercially? How could you get permission? You'd have to ask all the substantial copyright holders. Some of them might have contributed years before and be impossible to find. Some might have contributed decades before, and might well be dead, but their copyrights won't have died with them. You'd have to find and ask their heirs, supposing it is possible to identify those. In general, it will be impossible to clear copyright on the works that these licenses invite people to make. This is a form of the well-known "orphan works" problem, except exponentially worse; when combining works that had many contributors, the resulting work can be orphaned many times over before it is born.
Maybe what is needed is a selection of pedagogical examples for each CC condition that demonstrate when each condition is useful and when it is less so. A number of case studies that demonstrate in practical terms some of the trickier complexities. Could the Creative Commons website develop an interactive game giving educators the opportunity to test their interpretation of CC with recognizable case studies and interactive multiple choice questions. The gaming element could be built in by letting you move to more advanced levels and then some kind of Khan Academy style badges when you succeed. The more CC can be linked to the practical everyday problems faced by teachers the more likely they are to see the benefits.