Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Open Education Under Seige?

by Jill Rooney, Ph.D.,  

Following on the heels of the recent federal lawsuit against Apple and several publishers for allegedly colluding to set book prices, three of the largest educational publishers, Pearson, Cengage Learning, and Macmillan Higher Education, last week sued Boundless Learning, one of the newest entrants in the production of open education materials. 

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the publishers charge that Boundless Learning simply paraphrases their texts, and that, in doing so, “the young company, which produces open-education alternatives to printed textbooks, has stolen the creative expression of their authors and editors, violating their intellectual-property rights.”

The complaint states,

Notwithstanding whatever use it claims to make of ‘open source educational content,’ Defendant distributes ‘replacement textbooks’ that are created from, based upon, and overwhelmingly similar to Plaintiffs’ textbooks, [and] “Whether in the lecture hall or in a textbook, anyone is obviously free to teach the subjects biology, economics, or psychology, and can do so using, creating, and refining the pedagogical materials they think best, whether consisting of ‘open source educational content’ or otherwise. But by making unauthorized ‘shadow-versions’ of Plaintiffs’ copyrighted works, Defendant teaches only the age-old business model of theft.

The Chronicle further reported that Ariel Diaz, the head of Boundless Learning, said that the publishers are “wrongfully claiming ownership of open knowledge” and that the publishers are trying to create a monopoly. 

But it is not difficult to see that the publishers may have concerns beyond those raised by copyright infringement: According to Boundless Learning, their resources have been accessed by students at more than 1000 universities across the nation. This could seriously cut into the profit margin of the traditional textbook market.

Why This Case is Important

Regardless of the financial considerations, this case raises important questions about the Open Education movement and its reliance on unlicensed resources. Open Education and open resources have the potential to revolutionize and democratize access to learning, reducing or even eliminating textbook costs for millions of students, which is especially important as the costs of higher education continue to rise and outpace the incomes of those who want to earn college degrees.

However, serious consideration of the way that open education resources might have an impact on the rights of the creators on shared content is only just beginning. In many ways, this is similar to the controversy over downloaded music, which emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, upon the creation of Mp3 players. 

Recording artists argued that music-sharing sites, such as Napster, eMusic, and others were actually violating copyright law when they allowed users to download protected content such as songs and albums. 

The issue was resolved somewhat with the creation of sites such as iTunes, which charge users for downloaded songs. In the case of textbooks, the publishers are arguing that open education resources created by other parties but based on copyrighted works are a similar infringement on copyright law.

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