Tag Archives: intellectual property law

Open Education Week 2015: A Reflection on IP, Infrastructure, and Interest

This year, Open Education Week ran from March 9th to March 13th. Open Education Week, like Open Access Week, is a celebration of what has been accomplished and what is currently being done within the greater open movement. The Open Education Consortium sponsors the week by compiling resources, marketing materials, and educational tools for librarians, faculty, and other instructors around the world. One of the best parts about this process is that after the week ends, the Open Education website becomes a repository of sorts for events that happened that year. The resources for each event include recorded lectures and webinars as well as supplementary guides and tools. This year, just the webinar topics ranged from ensuring quality of digital content in the classroom to the impact of the open educational movement on the internationalization of universities globally.

This is the first year that UIUC has participated in Open Education Week and I was lucky enough to help create and lead two of our events, which were spearheaded by the Office of Information Literacy. Before I describe my experience with those events, it might be helpful to back up and explain why open education is important, especially within the library community, and what Open Educational Resources (OER) are. SPARC defines OER broadly as any learning resource that is released “under an open license which permits…free use and repurposing by others”. I would argue that the most important word in the last sentence is repurposing. The Open Education movement is built on the idea that education is about sharing, expanding, and refining knowledge. That can only happen if licenses allow educators to revise, adapt, remix, combine, and then redistribute resources. If you take a learning object that another educator created, improve upon parts of it, and then only share it in the classes that you teach, some would argue that you are not fully participating in the Open Education movement. Re-sharing is key.

But why does all of this matter? The Open Education movement works to mitigate the legal and technical barriers that impede collaboration and instructors’ ability to create the absolute best learning objects possible. Instructors are often frustrated with traditional learning content platforms, like textbooks and even course packets, which paint their course with a broad brush and often do not allow adaptation and flexibility. Likewise, students become frustrated when they have to buy a $100+ textbook and it is not completely or consistently used. To make the matter more complicated, many educators (including librarians) find fair use law subjective and confusing. OER is a solution to many of these issues. In addition, OER often reduces the costs we put on our students, many of whom are drowning in an incredible amount of debt already. The use of OER has been proven to increase retention and foster equitable access to learning regardless of socio-economic status. Librarians obviously care deeply about both of these goals.

My department hosted two sessions, one for library staff and one for instructors across campus. We used the same companion LibGuide for both sessions but the learning outcomes for each session were different. I taught the session for staff and my colleague, Crystal Sheu, taught the session for instructors. It’s important to mention, however, that we created the lesson plans and presentations together and we often consulted each other and our boss, Lisa Hinchliffe, about learning activities and presentation details. I share a few reflections below with the hope that others will think about how this type of programming could affect their library programming and culture and possibly make OER a more central conversation on their campus. Please note that these views are my own.


Getting buy-in is difficult! Both of our audiences were definitely smaller than we had hoped. This was our first year doing this type of programming so smaller numbers are to be expected. At the same time, it is important for us to think about why there might not currently be a large audience for this topic. Do faculty already know about OER? Do librarians get enough OER training through their professional development experiences? Do faculty not have the time to find and adapt OER? Are librarians weary of telling their faculty about yet another thing they should think about doing? Should we have used different marketing techniques?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions and I think that’s okay. Still, whenever we do this type of programming, whether it is internal or open to the entire campus, I think it is important to find a deeper understanding about what’s happening. Sometimes there are just odd conflicts or planning issues. But for the most part, there are structural reasons people do or do not find value in something. Even putting the programming out there allows us to gauge our audiences’ interest and then do further research based on that.


Somehow it always surprises me just how complicated intellectual property and copyright is. OER definitely attempts to reduce the confusion around the legalities of sharing by using Creative Commons licenses. We introduced these licenses on a very basic level, in case any of our audience members weren’t familiar with them.

Nevertheless, even CC licenses can be complicated and require thoughtful planning. One great example is the Share-A-Like license. We tried our best to tell participants that Share-A-Like requires intentionality. When you take an OER (or any licensed material) under a Share-A-Like license and adapt it, reuse it, and then share it again, it has to be licensed under the same original license you started with, which is obviously some variation of a Share-A-Like license.

When I first learned about this license, I was excited about its function. On face value, the license seems to take a major tenant of the open movement and put it into practice. If you use something that someone else has spent time and energy creating, you, too, should share your final product openly. Yet, a more critical look of this license paints a more nuanced picture. By making openness “infectious,” we take away the creator’s ability to choose how they would like to share and disseminate their work, which (I believe) is one of the most important reasons we have become author rights and open access advocates. Note: this assertion is most definitely being influenced by some of the resources I have been exploring lately, including one of the best critiques of openness and assuming openness is always the best option that I have ever read and a project that contextualizes information instead of assuming that it should always be free and open to all, specifically in regards to cultural heritage objects that have historically been attained through violent and colonialist means. I also recognize that “open” often means different things when thinking about educational resources, publications, cultural object, data, code, and software and we can’t group them together. While I think sharing is the point of OER, I’m not sure licensing is the place we should force educators to do it.

I’m currently taking a data policy seminar with Victoria Stodden. A trained statistician with a legal background, Dr. Stodden has been an incredible advocate for the open science movement. She regularly speaks about sharing data, code, and software to increase reproducibility and progress within the scientific community. Our last class session focused on intellectual property, with a more specific focus on licensing data and code. The Share-A-Like license came up in our conversation and, of course, I was a huge proponent for it. I explained that in a movement like Open Education, where the goal is to take some power and autonomy back from the commercial entities that make textbooks and other learning materials, Share-A-Like is imperative for making sure that no one is selling OER that have been adapted downstream. Her point, however, was that Share-A-Like actually impedes the OER movement to some extent. She argued that if an instructor finds two OER under different Share-A-Like licenses, they can’t combine these two resources and re-share whatever they make. Why? Because both licenses require you use that same license and you can’t use two licenses on one OER.

This is getting confusing, right? My point is simply that as we embrace CC licenses, many of which make our lives easier and make sharing less complicated, we need to continue to be critical of their purpose. Likewise, we need to teach instructors that CC licenses aren’t a quick fix for everything but instead one option in an entire toolkit of legal resources. Moreover (and this is my epiphany from Open Education Week), every library that expects to do robust outreach around OER or OA needs to have at least one person on staff that understands some of the intricacies of copyright and intellectual property rights.


This brings me to my next point. Before really starting OER outreach, your library should start to think about what kind of infrastructure it has to support such a movement. It is difficult to get people excited about an OER initiative when there isn’t much in place within the library to help get it off of the ground. Now obviously some libraries have more resources than others. But I’m suggesting you ask the same questions you ask before you start any outreach, including everything from information literacy sessions to collaborations with other campus programs.

Who will be the primary contact person for OER? In other words, who is the face of the library’s initiatives in this area? If you have a strong subject specialist model, how will the library foster collaboration between OER experts and subject specialists? What forms of internal training are needed? Similarly, who will be the point of contact for IP and copyright issues (if there isn’t one already)? Is this person familiar with OER and CC licenses? What’s really challenging is that the library needs to help instructors with copyright, instructional design, and technology. This means that teamwork and internal communication is essential.

I believe that one of the most important forms of infrastructure in the OER conversation is the University IR. If we are telling instructors that sharing and re-sharing is important, are we backing that claim up through our resources? Many institutions, including the University of Michigan and MIT, have repositories for their OER. This fosters internal collaboration and sharing, especially when two instructors might teach a similar class and learn from each other. Additionally, most (if not all) of these institutional repositories for learning objects are open to non-affiliates, which aligns with the greater open movement. I’m not suggesting that learning objects have a place in the IR that usually holds research materials. But there needs to be an outlet or service for instructors that would like to go beyond disciplinary or general OER sharing.

Alternative uses

The session aimed at staff really surprised me. We based our lesson plan on the standard subject specialist model: you talk with your faculty about OER and teach them the standard process of finding, evaluating, and repurposing OER for their classroom. Our participants had much more nuanced and complicated reasons for using OER. Some examples include using OER as a solution to sharing educational materials internationally. We often think about this as giving others access to our OER but I think we have just as much to learn from their learning objects. Covering this intended use meant taking a minute to talk more explicitly about access and repositories in other languages.

An additional use that we hadn’t thought of was using OER when working with unaffiliated patrons at the reference desk. Because of the size of the library and our great VR service, Illinois often gets questions from around the nation and world. Community members are also some of our most regular patrons. We are often able to help patrons with their needs, but if they do not have access to our electronic or physical collection, OER could be a potential resource for their question because they can be accessed by anyone.

Moving past consumption

The Office of Information Literacy recently applied to present some of this information at Illinois’ Faculty Summer Institute (FSI). If we are accepted, our primary audience will be faculty members that have applied to be a part of the institute in order to learn more about new instructional movements at Illinois. Our goal for this session is simply to go beyond consumption. The two workshops we just taught were primarily based on how to find, evaluate, and use others’ OER. But what if you have an existing learning object you’d like to share as an OER? What is the right venue for you? How can you use your subject expertise to create metadata and documentation that allows re-use by others? What license fits your needs? Our profession is continuing to teach students and instructors that they aren’t just consumers of information. They create and disseminate information every day. Our hope is that faculty are see the value in sharing their expertise with others teaching within their discipline.

Libraries are apt to do this work!

I made the following graphic for my session with staff. I think that it’s important to keep all of these in mind when doing open education work.

library explination

We are experts in many of the areas OER touch upon! Our time at the reference desk is often spent locating hard-to-find information through a variety of sources. We teach information evaluation everyday. Many of us have some expertise or understanding of copyright and/or copyleft. We are trained in instructional design and instructional technology; we spend a lot of our time crafting learning outcomes and identifying activities and assessments that can foster experiences that address these outcomes. We have all of the tools we need to be conversant with faculty, staff, administrators, and colleagues about the need for open education and the use of OER. It is time for us to embrace the Open Education Movement as a valuable tool for increasing access to education, improving learning, and furthering the mission of the campus library.

A special thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe for letting me explore my interest in OER. Thanks, too, to Crystal Sheu for collaborating with me to make this vision a reality. Thanks to Sveta Stoytcheva, Kyle Shockey, and the Twitterverse for pointing me to the awesome critiques of openness discussed above.


The Mark of Zotero

This just in, via beSpacificReuters is suing George Mason University for violating the Endnote TOS. Apparently (though I’m not sure I really understand the issue – this news story is very cryptic) Reuters claims the organization violated the terms of service when they analyzed ways to convert style files from Endnote to Zotero. Reuters (parent company of ISI, parent company of Endnote) accuses Zotero’s programmers of reverse-engineering Endnote files to make the conversion possible and that this threatens to destroy their customer base.

Some chat at Zotero suggests the legality of using the style files (many of which were contributed by users of Endnote) to be a bit murky. Some bloggers say the allegation is false, and that this is a SLAP suit. Others wonder if this means anyone who migrates their citations from Endnote to something else are equally liable. (Of course, anyone who has tried to import Web of Knowledge citations into RefWorks knows the company is not happy with competition and is willing to sacrifice user satisfaction on that altar.)

And hey, couldn’t MLA, Chicago, APA, and CBE sue Reuters for reverse-engineering their style manuals and destroying their customer base? Just asking.

Want to follow the paper trail? The Disruptive Library Technology Jester explains how. And Jystar raises a fascinating issue: “law suits like this really make me wonder if the current scheme of intellectual property law in the US actually fosters innovation. or … fosters bullying and enables large corporations, backed by lots of money and lawyers, to edge out any smaller competition, even if the competition is superior?”

Good question.

UPDATE 10/06: Michael Feldstein at e-literate, who at first thought Reuters might have a point, has learned more about the claims and now thinks … they probably have misrepresented what Zotero did. Via a comment at the Chron.

There’s now much talk of boycotting Thomson/Reuters. Given the number of companies and products involved, it may be hard to do since they own Westlaw, ISI, Findlaw, all kinds of business, financial, medical, and accounting resources, not to mention the Reuters news service.