In the beginning there was grad school. That ended in 2010. Now what do I blog about?


April 19, 2009

Digital Piracy: What does it mean for copyright and plagerism in academia?

Up late knitting the other night, I caught an episode of BookTV on CSPAN where author Matt Mason talks about piracy in the digital world. Mason's talk provided a lot of food for thought on the issue of copyright and plagiarism.

It is so easy to copy & paste content from one web site to another and to grab and reuse images from one web site then embed them in your own. Linking, copying and pasting loses the original source. Who owns what? And what content is freely available? Can I use the RSS icon freely in a tutorial about podcasting or do I have to seek permissions for use? If I need permission, who do I ask? There are hundreds of versions of the RSS icon on hundreds of thousands of web sites. We can assume it is public property but how do we know if it is or not? (Think about 'Happy Birthday to You'. It is a copyright protected song. It is illegal to sing it in public. If you sang it at a children's party at Chuck E. Cheese, you were breaking the law.... you pirate! you criminal!)

There are web sites which offer classic novels in digital format freely, and there are bands who share their music freely. At the same time, there are organizations out there working with the government to establish governance over these digital objects and manage copyright protection and enforce copyright law. And there are the users - millions of people who are online today, right now, all over the world, moving, copying, sharing, transforming, redefining, reusing and re purposing this information at a tremendous rate. When you think about it, it would be impossible to monitor or police all this activity. The organizations who are struggling to retain control over digital media (such as the RIAA) are fighting a losing battle.

Mason's talks about piracy, looking at pirate radio in the 50's and 60's as well as piracy in the film industry in the early 1900's, and considers how when the masses find something they really like and that is useful to them, they will do whatever they need to do to ensure they can continue to use it. He explains how piracy in digital media is actually a good thing, that since there are more people using existing digital media in creative and innovative ways, they are actually improving it not ruining it. And considering the overall number of people doing this and how much content they are shifting, moving, sharing the media is really becoming something else, a collective unit, and losing its individual identity. If that's the case, how do you police the activity?

What does this have to do with edu?

In regards to copyright and plagiarism of educational materials, we as a society really need to revaluate what we are doing and why. The Fair Use act and the TEACH act are two small steps toward breaking away from old standards of ownership of intellectual materials. The Fair Use act is good but the two year limitation is questionable. Why the limit? What is the point of that? If the material is used in a productive way and the students benefit from its use and the teacher using it is happy with the results, why limit the number of uses? It makes no sense. The TEACH act opens the door so that traditionally formatted teaching materials can be used in online teaching and learning (O-T&L). Again, a good step in the right direction, but publishers still drag their feet in producing materials in digital format because they are afraid of losing revenue generated from textbooks. Instead of saying no, we will not generate digital materials, why not find ways to generate revenues in other ways?

The American school system is in a crisis. No one has officially called it a crisis, but it is. There's no money, budgets are constantly cut, the student/teacher ratio is ridiculous, school buildings are old and decaying, the curriculum is generations old and is missing the fundamentals of today's society and has no focus on the future. Now is a good time to become educational pirates. Now is the time to become creative, innovation renegades. Now is the time to look at what resources we have and make new things, new media, new teaching and learning opportunities. We need to keep pushing the envelope. We need to encourage alternative uses of materials. We as IT professionals in the academic world are in good positions to revolutionize teaching and learning. We need to keep our eyes and ears open. We need to know and understand the laws. But we need to think and act creatively. Look at what is happening with digital media in other industries. It does relate to academia. Its not as exciting as the recording industry, it doesn't generate revenue like Hollywood but academia is a part of everyone's lives just like the entertainment world. We have to participate in the revolution or be left behind.

This week, in the news, the Swedish web site publishers of were sentenced to one year in prison and a $3.6 million fine. Will it end illegal file sharing? No. Will it end illegal distribution of movies and music? No. So what is the point? The point is that Hollywood and the court system sent a message. The message they sent is this: 'We are strong and powerful and all that matters to us is money.' BUT... The message heard by pirates and people who participate in digital media piracy is this: 'We have no new ideas and we are afraid of and unsure of technology so we won't try to adapt to the changing times.' (Read article, PC World)

Instead of filing and managing this lawsuit for two years, what if they had spent the time and money coming up with a new business model which would allow them to retain the rights to their media while providing a service to the masses of people who obviously want the media but in alternative formats to what is currently offered?

Mason's talk is fascinating. You can watch the lecture online: CSPAN Archives or learn more about author on his web site and watch the shortened video summary of 'The Pirate's Dilemma'.

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