Friday, December 7, 2012

My thoughts on Flat World Knowledge "free to fair"

So as you no doubt already know, Flat World Knowledge announced last month their plans to stop free online access to their books starting January 1, 2013.  At the risk of sounding very cynical, my first thought when I read the news was "told you so."

From early on, it felt like FWK was using openness as a marketing gimmick.  I actually loved the idea of their iTunes-like model, where they try to upsell students on $0.99 add ons like quizzes and worksheets, while giving the book away for free.  But I found it horribly frustrating that they had their open content intentionally set up to be difficult to move off their platform.  Open licenses give four basic rights: reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute.  FWK's platform made redistribution nearly impossible.  Their "Make it your own" platform allowed for remix, but only within the confines of their system.  Any other use required extensive copy-paste or web crawlers.  Legal and allowable, but annoying.

In some ways, I feel that FWK's move to charge for their content is more in line with how they were running things already.  I am concerned about what they are going to do with their license.  As David Wiley noted recently, the area of charging for open content is a "no man's land," since if someone were to pay to access the content, the user would have rights to copy that content and share it outside the paywall.  However, if you read Jacky Hood's comments, featured on FWK's blog, she writes
We also believe that open materials are ‘free to be improved’, not necessarily ‘free of charge.’ [...] While some thought leaders would prefer that all materials be licensed CC BY without additional restrictions (NC, ND) and without cost, Creative Commons licensing allows both restrictions and payments.
While she is right, of course, that CC licenses allows NC restrictions and allows for collection of payments, it does not allow for FWK to prevent distribution outside their paywall.

In their original announcement, FWK said
To most of you, what matters is not how we license our content, but what you can do with it.  [...] there are some licensing issues and options that we are currently discussing with our own advisors, as well as leaders from Creative Commons and other OER organizations.  We will share more details as decisions are made.
Personally, I don't see what all the fuss is about.  If FWK owns the copyright to their works, then they can grant users the right to make changes to it, with or without an open license.  Publishers have been doing this for years, albeit not to the same depth of changes.   Michael Boezi expressed that a dual license had been considered, but this wouldn't prevent faculty from redistributing the content they were granted a CC license to.  I really don't see how they can avoid dropping the CC license at this point.  If anything, putting CC content behind a paywall would just encourage redistribution outside of their system, undercutting their sales opportunities.

Mind you, I'm very happy FWK will continue to offer low cost textbooks - that is a very good thing, and will hopefully have a positive effect on the market.  But I feel kind of bad for all the open textbook advocate groups that worked so hard to make FWK what it is today, who now will have to go purge all those FWK off their open textbook lists.

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