Are Creative Commons Licenses Best for OER?

It is readily apparent from many sources that the costs of higher education have skyrocketed in nominal dollars since the mid-1980s.  Less apparent has been the rise in terms of real (inflation-adjusted) dollars. In an age of anti-intellectualism and skills-based focus by government officials, higher education has experienced an unprecedented lack of support despite a thriving economy.  Despite admonishments by business luminaries such as Mark Cuban, our society has devalued a liberal education that fosters critical thinking and creativity. Flat salaries for nearly a decade have resulted in a 30% loss of buying power for college faculty and the institutions that employ them.   

It is a subjective judgment, but I think it fair to say that higher education in America is in a crisis.  Many institutions will need to cut costs for students just to keep enrollment up, or risk coming to the office to find chains on the building doors.  It is a bad strategy to assume that things will get better any time soon. The economy has peaked, and another showdown looms on the horizon. All this is to make a simple point:  Cutting costs for students is critical, and we must take it seriously. If we don’t want to cut salaries, we need to save elsewhere. Astronomical textbook costs are an easy target, and the solution has been Identified.  

There are several important barriers to the broad implementation of OER.  One is that it takes a lot of work to write a book, and a few people are altruistic enough to give it away.  Many of us would rather get fleeced by a textbook company and make a pittance than we had just give it away freely.  Once you have thousands of hours in a project, it is very difficult indeed to slap a Creative Commons license on it and put it out there for the world.  In a world where “publish or perish” is a bona fide concern, we don’t see any way to get proper credit for such a grand, altruistic gesture. There are some other galling things about CC licenses.  You give away the right to chop up your work, repackage it, and redistribute it. The “attribution license” requires that you be given credit, but you have no way of knowing whether you will even want your professional reputation tied to these new products.  You can also restrict “commercial use”, which basically says other people can’t try to profit from your work.

The spirit of “don’t make money off my hard work” may be written into the license, but it is not effective in practice.  Big companies can repost your work “for the good of the learner,” when the real intent is to spam search engines with your content.  They get a valuable rise in Google ranks, and you get nothing for a service that businesses pay handsome sums for otherwise. You also lose the quality of your work over time, because any new editions, corrections, and expansions you add will not make it into every version.   Philosophically, I think Creative Commons Licenses are great and are a credit to humanity. I also think they have some glaring deficiencies for academic authors considering publishing a book as OER as opposed to selling it to the corporate giants.

I propose that likeminded academic authors explore a new type of license that is inspired by the CC licenses and the GNU licenses that came before them.   With this in mind, I developed what I call an “Open Education Resource-Quality Master Source License.” This license is inspired by the GNU licenses used by software developers and the Creative Commons licenses.  These licenses, however, result in many iterations of content that are not updated and corrected as time passes. The purpose of the OER-QMS license is to offer content creators the right to maintain a single, high-quality source that they control and maintain such that quality can be preserved over time.  Whereas the CC licenses have taken a ground up approach, my approach was to retain the basic copyright laws for traditional publishing and build a handful of exceptions that make them available as OER.

Here is the plain English version of what I came up with:

Section 1 A of the license basically says this is my stuff, and if you can’t use it like I say, then you can’t use it at all.

Section 1 B is the carrot.  You have to adopt the book to use it, and all that means is that you must send me a note saying who you are, that you are using it, what you are using it for, and where you are using it at.

Section 1 C says you can cite my stuff like you can another book in a critical review, journal article, etc. under the normal rules of scholarly publication.

Section 1 D extends the right to use my stuff to your instructional designers without extra measures (some professors have help!).  This section also lays out what rights I’m giving you:

  • You can cut and paste stuff into Blackboard (or whatever LMS your institution uses) as long as your students need a password to get to it.  You must give me credit, and provide a link to the URL where you got the information–some disciplines would call that a footnote.
  • You can print stuff if you want to for your own purposes, and you can make copies for indigent students on a case by case basis.  What you can’t do is print hundreds of copies and sell them in your institution’s bookstore.
  • You can also print copies if you need them to go into those big binders for the accreditors, or whatever bureaucratic nonsense your institution makes you do.
  • You can link to any of the material from your LMS, departmental webpage, Library OER directory, or whatever you like.   I want people to use my stuff, I just want it used from my webpages so I know (and can document) that it is being used.

Here is some stuff you explicitly cannot do with my stuff:

  • Put it on the web, any kind of way.  Link to it as much as you like, but don’t republish it.
  • Don’t make an ebook, PDF, or any other kind of file out of it.  Use the HTML in your LMS, but I don’t want a bunch of static eBooks, PDFs, or any other file types floating around that I can’t update, account for, or anything else.
  • Don’t use my work to produce a “derivative” work.  Normal citations are fine, and using the content as a complete book in your classes is fine, using just sections is fine, but I’d like my work to stay mine and hopefully get some recognition for it.   I don’t think most of us in the Ivory Tower question why this is important. If you don’t work in academia, Google “publish or perish” and check out what we have to put up with.
  • I know that since we teachers get paid so well, it can only be pure greed that motivates this, but I ask that you not try to make any money off my work, including you SEO masters out there.   IF there are a few dollars to be made, I’d like to use those to pay for my domain, hosting, software, etc.

And that’s it.  I view this license as an exception to regular copyright laws, and as such, it can be brief.  I invite you to view the more legalistic version and leave comments on either version. I’m sure that this is imperfect, but I believe that we should have the conversation and that it must begin somewhere.

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