The licensing balance: Dr Chuck and MIT OCW

line drawing of balance scales

Like many (well many in the educational technology world anyway) I saw Chuck Severance’s blog post yesterday about deciding to stop using Creative Commons licensing for high value stuff and to reissue his content with All Rights Reserved. I found the post sad but understandable.

With an Open license you give up some/ most control over how your content is used- this is a choice and for most a balance between positive and negative effects. The choice can be determined, by political, moral, ethical, or contractual obligations or inclinations. Once something is out under an open license you have given up some control and it may be used in ways that you can’t imagine. These might be fantastic or they might be unfortunate. For Dr Severance the balance tipped and and the spammed misuse of his content prompted a change in stance on CC licenses.

Today I saw a news article from MIT about an MITx student, Amol Bhave, who took an MITx course. He wanted to take the next course but MITx wasn’t yet offering the subsequent course, so Amol created the next course from the corresponding CC-licensed MIT OCW material and ran his own follow up MOOC. An action the original professor, MIT OCW, and possibly MIT all seem to be happy enough about.

It would be possible to discuss the issue Dr Chuck is not rejecting open licenses per se but just CC licenses; but (as far as I know) for content and content discovery tools anything other than CC is a waking nightmare to deal with and kills the type of web-based advanced search that lets you find open content (my understanding of this may be rusty but, last time I checked, for content aggregators CC or PD is pretty much the only game in town).

Now, it would be easy to compare these stories and say look at the good open licenses can do, but for me these examples create part of a balanced picture. To opt into open licensing, you have to weigh things up and keep weighing them up. At the risk of preempting and paraphrasing an unfinished article (ok I’ve been sitting on it for two years now, so I’m not going to let that stop me), there are at least two steps in using open licensing:

  • Step one is to appreciate the arguments for open
  • Step two is to weigh the balance and choose

Step one may well be a transformational shift in your understanding but step two is an ongoing process. To pretend otherwise changes the discussion of the appropriateness of an ‘Open license’ from a reasoned choice to an ideology. Even if Open is a valid ideological choice, and for many people it is, turning discussions about licensing into religious wars doesn’t help anyone, in particular those trying to find,  use, and share content. Licenses are a necessary means, making them an end in themselves is a problem.*

Spammers have made the balance change for Dr Severance so that the CC license doesn’t seem like a good fit any more – it hasn’t changed his desire to share and provide access to his stuff.

*Yes one can ignore or reject the whole system of IPR, but legal peril aside, it’s the system most of us work under, even if it is increasingly crazy. As a related aside, I think there are significant differences between an organization’s use of an open license and an individual’s – especially if public monies are involved (but that’s veering towards a different discussion).

[updated for clarity]

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2 Comments

  1. Update as one stage isn’t clear.

    It would be possible to discuss the issue that Dr Chuck is not rejecting open licenses per se but just CC licenses; but (as far as I know) for content and content discovery tools anything other than CC is a waking nightmare to deal with and kills the type of web-based advanced search that lets you find/ filter open content (my understanding of this may be rusty but, last time I checked, for content aggregators CC or PD is pretty much the only game in town). Writing your own license pretty much opts you out of being discoverable by license.

    My post somewhat conflates the rejection of CC license with the rejection of open. This is inaccurate but veers towards the realpolitik for content discovery tools and metadata.

    Reply

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