Knowledge Ownership and Access
Donald G. Perrin
In the Middle Ages, monks and scholars hand copied illuminated manuscripts. These rare and important documents were protected by the Church, which interpreted them to the people. The printing press opened a new era for written communications, open dialog, and a thirst for knowledge, by replicating large numbers of affordable copies. The resulting explosion of knowledge moved us from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance.
Definitions (based on Wikipedia searches of boldface words and phrases below)
Property rights existed since biblical times. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, lawyers and politicians were deeply involved in settling ownership disputes. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, intellectual property law gave legal protection to artists, inventors, and creators of original works for a defined period in order to profit from their inventions or creative works.
A Patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a government or state to an inventor or assignee in exchange for a public disclosure of an invention. The term for patents may be limited to 20 years, after which the invention becomes part of the public domain.
Copyright is more complex. It is a set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work. These rights can be licensed, transferred and/or assigned. Copyright applies to a wide range of works that are substantive and fixed in a medium. When the copyright expires, the work is said to enter the public domain which makes it available to everyone.
Advent of Mass Media such as books, newspapers, radio, film, and television have made copyright law more complex, partly because of the huge sums of money involved. Copy machines, computers and the digital revolution made all media easy to copy. Creators and vendors claim substantial losses due to “pirating”.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) redefined owner and user rights. It criminalized reproduction and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent access controls to copyrighted works and increased penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet. This law was oppressive to teachers, who feared that the loosely defined “fair use” provision did not protect them from prosecution if they copied or used copyrighted materials in their classes. DMCA also gave impetus to privatization of knowledge.
Privatization results when organizations limit access to information for purpose of profit. This is actually happening with library materials and books, films and recordings including those in the public domain. Digital Locks can limit the use of purchased materials for a set time period and legislation has been proposed to add momentum to this movement. This raises serious questions about user rights for legitimate purchasers of these products, especially if vendors can lock items in the public domain and render them accessible only to paying customers.
Freedom of Information is an extension of freedom of speech, a fundamental human right recognized in international law. It also applies to freedom of expression in any medium, be it orally, in writing, print, through the Internet or through art forms. This means that the protection of Freedom of Speech as a right includes not only the content, but also the means of expression. Freedom of information also considers the right to privacy in the context of the Internet and information technology.
Creative Commons (CC) was invented to create a more flexible copyright model. The Copyright is issued by a non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share. A Creative Commons license allows the creator to communicate which rights they reserve, and which rights they waive for the benefit of recipients or other creators. An easy to understand one-page explanation of rights, with associated visual symbols, explains the specifics of each Creative Commons license. This simplicity distinguishes Creative Commons from an all rights reserved copyright. In 2008, there were an estimated 130 million works licensed under Creative Commons. Wikipedia is one notable web-based project protected by a Creative Commons license.
Open Source describes open access to the knowledge required to create an end product. It describes a development environment that redefines copyright, licensing, domain, and consumer issues. Open Source Computer Software allows users to share, adapt, develop and extend source code to meet their specific needs. In return, they contribute code to the collaborative for the benefit of other users. The open source model embraces the concept of concurrent yet different agendas. It differs from more centralized models of development used in commercial software companies. Moodle is an excellent example of “free” open source software that can be adapted by individual users.
Editorial Comment: Innovative communication technologies offer new opportunities for their creators and users. In the process, legal and business models need adjustment so that controls are neither oppressive nor unfair. Traditional controls involving legal actions are unpopular and unenforceable. Litigation against extreme violations has done little to curb pirating for personal use. Intellectual property must be respected, but in the digital age the playing field has changed and must be continually redefined.
The collaborative model (creative commons) and shared resources (open source) have led to successful companies such as Google. Those whose success was based on tolls and locks, like Microsoft, are diminishing in power under pressure from open source and free Internet. Companies that make significant gains by privatizing knowledge are in direct competition with open access via the Internet. The marketplace will make its statement as the public is better informed.
Education is being crippled by oppressive laws (DMCA), excessive costs, and privatization of knowledge. Business and industry must recognize that a free society requires free and easy access to knowledge. That is what we need for our schools, colleges and universities to be competitive. That is what the Internet represents. Keep it that way!
Note: This article was prepared in a few hours by searching and modifying parts of a dozen articles in the Wikipedia. This is a legitimate use of a Creative Commons document as a starting point for discussion. It is not intended to represent good research based on primary resources or original writing. It was done out of a sense of urgency because a proposed law in Canada may further restrict the availability of resources for education. Read more in Rory McGreal’s article in the Calgary Herald. http://www.calgaryherald.com/technology/Copyright+bill+could+digitally+lock/3148130/story.html
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