eduCommons Namespace Problems…

As most of my readers know, we have been using the name eduCommons for our open source OpenCourseWare software for many years now. (See http://cosl.usu.edu/projects/educommons/ for more information). Actually, our first National Science Foundation proposal using this name went in in 2001, I believe. However, today I saw that Creative Commons Canada has launched a small initiative by the same name. I tried to leave a comment on their blog, but was required to login to comment and could not find the register/login link, so here I am forced to use trackback to get my message to them. So here’s the message:

While I fully support your goals (as you will see if you look at the website referenced above), I would ask that you please choose a name other than eduCOMMONS as this can only create confusion.

It was bad enough when Sun called and said “we’re thinking about naming our new project Education Commons. It’s really close to your name, and is closely related to what you’re doing, so we thought we’d call and ask if you would mind?” I said yes, I would mind, and of course they did it anyway…

2 replies on “eduCommons Namespace Problems…”

This is an interesting problem and should probably be approached in its general form rather than as an isolated incident.

Openness enables more stepping on toes, even toes of those we support, without traditional recourse in some cases.

I recently registered the domain uofmoodle and also universityofmoodle, and then I emailed Martin Dougiamas to see how he felt about it. He didn’t like it. In fact, he was rather sharp with me at first. But I emailed him back and told him I was just trying to understand and asked a few more questions. I’m pretty slow. But eventually I got it. He has worked his butt off to make the Moodle brand into something. That’s why I wanted to use it. I wanted to surf on his energy. He didn’t want me to. That’s not very hard to understand. So I completed the 3-part email series with my assurance to him that I would not use any moodle variant domains and that I would park on the ones that I had so that some bad guy, like Sun (reference to Dave’s post -.ed note), couldn’t get it.

Here’s what I think:

1) Martin Dougiamas and anyone else who creates intellectual property needs to formulate a clear and concise set of guidelines for the use of their various properties that they care about. Instead of every instance being a Big Deal, it should just be a matter of going to a menu and selecting; including, Not On The Menu.

2) Moodle and eduCommons are particularly interesting in that, substantively, they represent openness, but as a brand, they have a value which is independent of all that free and open use that was hoped for. This level of property needs to be on the menu as well. The whole idea of a brand being property, to be looked at and regulated as if it was roast beef is both weird and strangely understandable.

3) Both Dave and Martin Dougiamas see themselves as brand managers. Even though their good-or-service has non-ownership in its soul, they want some form of control of the brand itself. Some form. They both use the word “confusion” in their response to brand-surfers like me and Sun. I love that, ‘me and Sun.’ Anyway, I’ve thought a lot about that word, ‘confusion.’ And I think what they both mean is, ‘I have plans for this brand and I don’t want anyone else taking it in some other direction.’

4) I respect that and I told the Moodle guy that I would even help him in a small way by parking. Even though I think in the long run he’ll have to let go. But this is where ‘me and Sun’ part ways I fear. Why do I back off, but Sun wouldn’t?

5) I’m not sure, but ultimately I think it has to do with reputation. Martin Dougiamas has limited restraints he can employ against me — but he could make me out to be a real schmuck within the Moodle community. I don’t want that, for both moral/ethical and strictly pragmatic reasons. Moodle already has an implicitly authorized consultants page; they can have a brand surfer schmuck index just as easily.

I believe that Sun can be influenced by reputation as well; it just takes more leverage. A lot more. My threshhold of agreement (TOA) in this case (ie, amount of pressure which would cause me to renounce my immediate self-interest) is at about “1,” because I have so much respect for Moodle. Sun’s TOA with Dave and eduCommons was much higher. But there is a TOA, and Dave could work toward approaching it, or suggest that he could, in a negotiation process.

6) Plus he could have his Suggested Guidelines spelled out on the menu, so things would feel less ad hoc.

7) It was established sometime back that Harvard does not own not-Harvard. Thus, we don’t own all the variants that could ever be devised which would effectively disable this type of brand-surfing. All we can do is counter-program with the target audience for whom the brand matters in the first place.

8) This all-we-can-do is not 100% effective. There are those for whom the TOA is too high to approach through reputational techniques. Desparate people. Sociopaths and rip-Off artists. Big Corporations.

9) Parking, letting a self-organizing network park on many many variants, is one way of addressing this form of the high TOA problem.

10) Brand-surfing and other high-level IP matters have to be worked out among open source/open content constituencies in order for openness to dominate, or it will be a vulnerability in the evolutionary battle against ownership.

Do I smell irony?

Your argument rests on your desire to eliminate confusion. See the Wikipedia entry for “United States trademark law.” The main body begins:

“The scope of a trademark is determined by whether there is “likelihood of confusion”…”

Coming from a guy that doesn’t believe in the concept of “intellectual property,” your proprietary position on the use of the word eduCommons sounds a lot like you consider it a trademark.

So, why not be Open and let anyone use it? Time to invoke the Jefferson/candle quote?

= )

Andy

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