ShareAlike, the Public Domain, and Privileging

There have been a number of comments on my recent post about license compatibility problems. I want to address two specific, related comments…

Stephen said:

The fundamental dilemma, in my view, is that some uses of a work essentially destroy the openness of the work.

And then Bill said:

The idea of copyleft/SA is not to restrict those who would remix in good faith, but to prevent profit-taking landgrabbers from removing things from the commons.

First, let’s be clear that there is nothing anyone can do to remove a public domain work from the commons. Period. Even though Penguin Classics prints and sells copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it will always be part of the public domain, and will continue to be available from places like Project Gutenberg. There is nothing that Penguin, Disney, or anyone else can do to move Huck Finn or any other verbatim public domain resource out of the commons.

Second, let’s also be clear that derivative works of public domain resources can be fully copyrighted, can be placed in the public domain, or can be licensed GFDL, CC, or any other license. Disney movies (which are fully copyrighted) based on stories (in the public domain) are an example. So, while there is nothing anyone can do to move a work out of the public domain, derivative works based on the public domain can certainly be copyrighted.

By contrast, ShareAlike (or copyleft) keeps derivative works in the commons by mandating which license they must be licensed with. This was the topic of my previous post.

So the discussion of copyleft approaches versus public domain approaches comes down to a simple question: do we choose to privilege people, or do we chose to privilege content? In the copyleft model, we privilege content (we guarantee it stays in the commons) at the cost of author freedom (to choose which license to use). In the public domain model, we privilege authors (we guarantee their freedom to choose which license to use) at the risk that some derivative works may leave the commons (be copyrighted).

So should we privilege people or content? For me, this is a very simple question. Content is simply a means to the end of supporting people’s learning. Content is never the end in itself. The idea that we might privilege content over people is frightening to me. As educators, people should always be the first, most important focus of everything we do.

More importantly, in the context of current realities where most of the open educational resources in the world are being produced by the so-called “developed world,” the copyleft requirement is even more sinister. With copyleft we once again find the “developed world” mandating solutions for the “developing world” (‘if you adapt our open educational resources for use in your country, you are required to license them the way we tell you to.’)

So… a few days ago I outlined the problems with copyleft / share-alike around license incompatibility in which GFDL and CC materials cannot be remixed, and most CC materials cannot be remixed with each other. Today I have argued that copyleft privileges content above people – and is especially problematic in the way it imposes “developed world” solutions on “developing world” users without flexibility or sensitivity to local needs.

Perhaps it is time for us to seriously discuss whether or not copyleft is good for the open education community?