Improving OER Messaging: A Heresy

Recently there have been some conversations about trying to craft a consistent message about OER that can be used with policymakers, particularly those in Washington DC. This exercise is necessary because, like it or not, the term “open” requires explaining. As does the term “free.” And a “message” that requires lots of explaining is a message that still needs crafting.

I recently heard the term “unobstructed license” batted around as the potential phrase we should use in our conversations about OER with policymakers. This is possibly the worst phrase I’ve heard recommended yet, for a number of reasons. (1) No one is currently using this phrase, so no one (even folks in the OER community!) knows what it means. (2) Consequently, it still requires an explanation. (3) The phrase is grammatically incorrect, if I understand what it’s trying to mean. I think it’s trying to mean materials who use is unobstructed by a license, or a license that removes obstacles from your use of a resource, or something like that. However, in the phrase “unobstructed license,” “unobstructed” modifies the word “license.” So we find ourselves talking about a license that is not obstructed in any way. An “unobstructed license” sounds more like DMCA or ACTA style copyright – like a license whose enforcement is unobstructed by little nuisances like Fair Use…

I fully agree that we need to unify our messaging around the important idea of OER, especially behind the powerful policy idea that when taxpayers fund the development of courses, textbooks, or curriculum materials, those materials ought to be OER. But how can we communicate this in a way that even congressmen can understand without additional explanation?

Now for the heresy. How about the phrase “public domain”?

Now I know, I know… there’s a widespread feeling that all OER are supposed to use a Creative Commons license. But there’s no reason this has to be true. Even Creative Commons recognizes that some “open” things shouldn’t use a CC license. For example, remember last year, when Creative Commons asked why the White House was using CC BY for it’s photographs when it should have been placing them in the public domain?

Educational materials in the public domain are OER by any definition.

If you said to a congresswoman, “Educational materials created with public dollars should be placed in the public domain” there would be no question what you meant. No further explanation needed. And that kind of message is the kind we should all be able to rally around. So rather than floundering about, looking for a concise way to explain how Creative Commons licenses use copyright law against itself to insure long-term public access and sharing, why not just simplify things? Why not use language the people we’re talking to understand?

Why shouldn’t our messaging in DC focus on the phrase “public domain”?

7 thoughts on “Improving OER Messaging: A Heresy”

  1. Though the simplicity is alluring, I still prefer attaching the Attribution requirement, and would hate to see it lost simply because of ignorance. So while I can dig this approach one /could/ add “…or open-licensed” to the end of that 10-second pitch without convoluting the message.

  2. I disagree, but as always, your great points deserve a full response: .

    “The bottom line is that new and complex concepts have to be explained. There are effective and ineffective ways of explaining them, but, short of telepathy, we have to go through that explanatory process.”

  3. Jared,
    I like to separate between community norms, and legal norms. If you look at academia for example, plagiarism is one of the worst sins, but this has nothing to do with copyright, since you can “right it”, just by attributing where the ideas came from. And even if you don’t, you’re usually not breaking any laws, as long as you rewrite the argument with your own words.

    In a similar vein, I hope that people who find the material I produce useful, and reuse it in some way, will give me attribution. However, I’m not sure if we really need to make this into a legal issue. And I can see places where it would be unnecessary, for example if you are putting 500 pictures together in a collage, and the attributions takes longer than the movie to roll over the screen.

    (Full disclosure, I still use CC BY for most of my stuff, because I am so used to it. I am thinking about switching to CC 0 though. Unfortunately, Norway doesn’t let you “place things in the public domain”).

  4. I could be wrong on this, but I was under the impression that things in the public domain still require attribution. That being the case, public domain has the advantage of being more easily understood than a CC license, even though some explanation will still be necessary.

  5. Just to be clear, are you proposing that OERs should actually be placed in the public domain (i.e. CC0) or that reference to the ‘public domain’ is used as an easily understood short hand for a variety of CC licenses?

    I would fully support the former, both for clarity and to undermine the need for attribution. I worry there is a danger that systematically and mechanistically making common the products of teachers’ work while still requiring attribution, may lead to a market for teachers based on a measured ‘impact factor’ of their reputation for producing OERs, while at the same time devaluing other pedagogic qualities required of teachers.

  6. Does “Public Domain” imply or denote any levels of national rights? Would it be be seen as limiting access to the public of only the country of origin?

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