Essays on Open Educational Resources and Copyright

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* Article: Free Learning. Essays on Open Educational Resources and Copyright. Stephen Downes.




Stephen Downes:

"I want and visualize and aspire toward a system of society and learning where each person is able to rise to his or her fullest potential without social or financial encumbrance, where they may express themselves fully and without reservation through art, writing, athletics, invention, or even through their avocations or lifestyle.

Where they are able to form networks of meaningful and rewarding relationships with their peers, with people who share the same interests or hobbies, the same political or religious affiliations - or different interests or affiliations, as the case may be.

This to me is a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence. This is what I aspire toward, this is what I work toward.


Issues surrounding copyright and free access are among the most divisive and most important of the digital age, bringing into the open questions about the nature of knowledge, of content, of society, identity and democracy.

So there should be no need to defend the presentation of a volume of thought on these issues, and yet, I nonetheless feel compelled. Some will say the release of such a larger work, which collects lecture transcripts, blog posts, position papers and essays, offers no new value. Others will suggest that the arguments based in such a work are needless semantics, hair-splitting, and unnecessary. Still others dismiss the positions advocated here as too radical.

Yet I am not aware of any extended work that treats these issues in anything like a systemic fashion, much less a volume that stakes out the particular perspective on open access I offer in this work. For this reason along, a collection of these essays is necessary, as a version of record. And I think I am in a position to offer such a version, and I think there is a historical necessity for one.

Indeed, it wasn’t until being engaged in the OER debate of May, 2011, that I realized how one particular version of the history of open source had taken sway, had become enshrined as the history of open source, when my own lived history was based on, and as a part of, quite a different history, one that had its origin not in the computer science departments of major U.S. universities, but in the back streets of FidoNet and the underground corridors of MUDs and MUDLibs.

There is a story to be told about open source, open content, and open learning from the point of view of the person desiring access to these things, rather than from the point of view of the provider. And it has been my steadfast (if I may say so myself) setting of the priority on access that draws out and clarifies this alternative perspective on free content, free software and free learning.

It is not just a point of fine semantics that determines, for example, whether ‘free’ includes or excludes commercial trade in the work. For those who make the fine distinction between ‘free’ as in gratis and ‘free’ as in libre I offer the sometimes baffled questioning of how one can exist without the other. And as we have entered into an era in history in which everything – from content to software to business methods and even DNA – is being valuated and commoditized and subject to the will – and whims – of the marketplace, we need to at last take into consideration a perspective on open learning that at least considers as reasonable an alternative perspective.

The title of this work – “Free Learning” – is one of those phrases with double meanings of which I am find. Such a phrase captures some of the nuance and intricacies of an idea. In one sense, ‘free learning’ means, of course, ‘learning for free’, which in turn may be thought of as ‘learning without charge’ or fee or cost, and also, learning freely, according to one’s own will and direction. In another sense, ‘free learning’ may be thought of as an imperative, a command, to release learning from its existing shackles, from its role as a colonizer and commoditizer of people and societies, and to set it free as a common cultural heritage, like a language, like a cuisine, like a musical tradition.

These represent, from my perspective, the major philosophical divides in 21st century education.

The divides are:

  • commercial vs non-commercial? What is the role of the private for-profit sector in learning? Is open education the the final full flourishing of public education, or is it the end of it?
  • directed learning vs self-directed learning (or, instructivism or constructivism; or, formal vs informal; or, control learning vs free learning) - or to put it another way - does the education system serve the interests of the providers, or of the learners?

These are not easy issues. They are hard issues, and it is not always clear on what grounds they will be decided. That's why David Wiley's arguments and mine appear to hang on a hair - nobody is sure what argument (if any) will break the debate open.

These issues are also difficult to untangle because no one perspective is an absolute. In a strict sense, as Richard Hall said the other day, there are no public and private sectors - it's all a blend, so the issue is really in how to manage that blend. And similarly, both the interests of providers (aka society (and to some (undetermined) extent the private sector) and the interests of learners must come into play. But how?

And these issues have eminently practical consequences. I cannot overemphasize how large the stakes are.

Brian Lamb recently summarized what's at stake with the first set of issues. The potential for the private sector to usurp education, the way Rupert Murdoch has usurped journalism, is too great to be ignored.

And this plays directly into the second issue. Education can at the drop of a hat become propaganda unless there are safeguards in place, but as the banking crisis has show we are as a society all too liable to be conned into giving up our safeguards.

There are days - most days, I fear - when I believe most people doesn't see these issues the way I see them, that they don’t even see these as the dividing lines at all. I see them as too naive, trusting in the good intent of the corporations and the private sector, not realizing that when the economy collapses and the environment degrades completely, that they along with the rest of us will be thrown under the bus, grist in the mill as the wealthy and powerful close ranks and save only themselves.

And I suspect they sees me as too cynical, too sceptical, too willing to believe in the corrective role of government, too willing to believe people can steer themselves through and out of crisis. And at the same time, too radical, too unwilling to embrace a more inclusive, more commerce-friendly stance, more concerned about the weight of ideas and philosophies than the day-today needs of the average person trying to make a living.

Yet I believe that this network of common systems, supports and cultures is what makes day-to-day living even possible. Where would we be if language and literature remained the property of a privileged few, to be dispensed as wisdom and guilders from on high, where we can only imagine and think what we are allowed to imagine and think, what we can afford to imagine and think?

I think that our common heritage is too valuable to slice and dice and apportion off to the highest bidder, and I think that the right of each person not only to consume, but also to contribute to, that heritage is a right that out not easily be surrendered. Who we are as individuals, as a society, as a species, rides on the outcome of this.

So it’s work, I think, a few pages of digital paper, a few whispers in the aether, a few moments of my time, and your time, to think of these issues, and out place in them." (

The War on Property and Sharing by the IP Maximalists

Stephen Downes:

"I think you may also want to examine how publishers and their supporters are changing (or trying to change) the concept of 'morality'.

Let me highlight some areas:

- the 'doctrine of first sale' is in the process of being repealed. What this doctrine states is that, if you buy something, you own it outright. You can, in turn, lend it, sell it, use it as a doorstop, whatever you want. Increasingly, manufacturers are retaining rights - not just regarding copying, but where something is used, how it is used, for what purpose it is used, and more. It's fair enough for them to try, but how does it become *immoral* for people to defend their rights under the doctrine of first sale?

- the doctrine of 'fair use' or 'fair dealing'. It has long been understood that a creator's rights under copyright are not absolute. In particular, under 'fair use' (or 'fair dealing' in Canada) we have historically had the right to copy a small portion of the work to use when citing, referencing, criticizing, parodying, or teaching. Publishers simply refuse to respect this doctrine - try publishing work with citations allowed under fair use but explicitly cleared by the other publisher. Or try showing a logo in a video without blurring it our. Meanwhile, DRM and similar technology makes fair use impossible. And such use, we are told, is immoral. How so now?

- the distinction between personal use and commercial use - we have had a longstanding understanding that restrictions on certain commercial activities - making copies onto blank media, for example - are perfectly legal in the non-commercial domain. That sharing copies among friends is a fundamentally different type of activity. In Canada, moreover, the government collects royalties on blank media, distributed to content providers, in explicit recognition of such activities. How, then, do they become immoral?

- the idea of 'free access' - from time immemorial, we have grown up believing that performances of various media are free to the viewer or listener. From listening to musicians play on the street or in bars, to watching TV or listening to the radio, to reading books in the library or billboards on the wall, if the media was available, then we could access it for free. There was never a *way* to act immorally in this regard. But now we are required to 'avert our eyes' - to not view, to not listen, to not download - in certain cases (and somehow, to magically know what those cases are). Why is this? Why is it OK to listen to a song for free on the radio but not listen to the very same song on the internet? How does the one behaviour remain moral but the other, somehow, become immoral?

- the doctrine of 'sharing' - as children we were told that sharing is good. And that when there are things that everybody can use - parks, roads, museums, culture - these are good as well. But more and more, we are being told that sharing is bad, and that everything must be owned by some person, who in turn has a 'right' to be compensated. How so? What gave *this* person, rather than the thousands of generations before him that nurtured the concept or the idea, ownership? How did sharing, always a virtue, become *bad*?" (

See also for context: Doug Johnson,

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