DPLA, beware! Cover your flank in Washington, D.C.—against threats to open educational resources and other unencumbered content

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imageThe Digital Public Library of America is wisely talking about the use of open, unencumbered content, a wonderful model for schools at all academic levels. Isn’t education about shared knowledge?

I doubt publishers would let the works of Saul Bellow or Toni Morrison be freely spread online. But for more mundane content, why not? Especially in the case of textbooks or replacements for them. DPLA boosters see the project as a way for widely spread knowledge to beget more; and I agree.

Problem is, some educational publishers regard open content as a threat, as evil socialistic competition; and Audrey Watters’ Hack Education blog has reported on a legislative loophole that she fears might prevent the Department of Labor from further using open educational resources. She is not a lawyer, I’m not, either, and I would welcome an examination of this issue by the DPLA’s organizational host, Harvard Law School; how about close looks at both the loophole and its current legislative status? See the Hack Education blog for full details.

As a layperson, I find the concern there justified even if the problem in this case might simply be a misunderstanding of Creative Commons licensing terms. Not just here but in other situations, the DPLA should work to cover its flank on Capitol Hill and at the White House if it’s to rely on as much on open content as is now planned. I know: this appears on the agendas of other organizations. But libraries, the DPLA, and its friends at Open Knowledge Commons will have their own needs.

Whatever the case, the DPLA should regard the proposed Labor-related loophole as one more reminder that it cannot be absolutely free of Washington—either in terms of tax laws for nonprofits or in terms of changes in copyright laws or in appropriations for work in open-content related areas. Alas, the latter could be negative harbingers on copyright matters, the reason why we should look beyond appropriations for Labor. The DPLA is not on a man-made island in the middle of the Atlantic. It must abide by U.S. copyright laws, as horrific as they so often can be. The copyright lobby calls the shots in D.C. Maybe this will change, but for now, as Larry Lessig knows all too well, money rules politics and, thus, American law.

The DPLA would do well to count less on legislative and judicial victories against content providers and more on working together with them to increase appropriations for purchase of library content. Of course, that will mean setting content priorities—no small reason why I favor intertwined but separate public and academic library systems, given their different needs.

Creative Commons Image credit: Thoth 188 on Flickr (license terms here).

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