CC Talks With
Wikitravel is a wiki dedicated to providing a “free, complete, up-to-date and reliable world-wide travel guide” that is built by collaboration of wikitravellers from 42 countries around the globe and in a variety of different languages including English, German, French and Japanese. The wiki tool, of course, lets any Internet reader create, update, edit, and illustrate any article on the Web site. Currently, wikitravel has 8,847 destination guides and other articles related to travel.
Wikitravel was begun in July 2003 by its two founders, Evan and Maj (Michele Ann Jenkins). It was inspired by Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, and by the needs of travelers for timely information that long book-publishing cycles can’t seem to meet.
In April 2006, Wikitravel and World66, another travel wiki, were acquired by Internet Brands, Inc., an operator of consumer information Web sites. The sites are growing exponentially, collectively attracting more than 2 million visits per month, more than triple a year ago.
Wikitravel is licensed to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license. Mia Garlick of Creative Commons asked Evan & Michele to explain a little about wikitravel and their experience of using a Creative Commons license.
CC: Why did you start Wikitravel?
Evan: Michele and I started Wikitravel to scratch a personal itch. We’d been traveling in Southeast Asia in the winter of 2002-2003 and we’d had really poor experience with the (brand new) guidebooks we were using. They were just hopelessly out-of-date and inaccurate. Restaurants that were listed were closed or moved; hotels were out of business; “unknown” beaches overrun with other people.
Michele writes all over guidebooks: scribbling out restaurants that are gone, changing phone numbers, updating addresses. It’s partly because we need the information, and she has to write it down somewhere. But I think it’s also just to show how wrong the books are.
At one point, as Michele drew a line through yet another non-existent hotel she started to grumble. “So how many other people out there do you think have come down this same road and not find a hotel and how many are going to? Making the change in my guidebook isn’t going to do them any good.” The idea of posting changes to a website came up, but we quickly realized that it wouldn’t be enough for just two people making updates on one or two guidebooks. I’d had experience with Wikipedia (which was pretty young at the time), and it dawned on us that we could recruit the entire Internet to write and update guidebooks for us, a little bit at a time. It was really our selfish desire for reliable travel guides that got us started on Wikitravel.
Michele: It always bothered me that thousands of readers were subjected to the travel opinions of a handful of writers and editors — and in some cases just one. If those few people didn’t find a place worth covering, it might as well not exist. And if they didn’t get a chance to double check a listing, how many people would lug their backpack down the wrong road in the middle of the night between editions? Then you have the big-trip problem: do you pack 1000-plus pages of guidebooks and then tear out pages as you go along? Do you buy the guidebooks along the way? What if your trip is San Francisco-Bangkok-Hanoi-Lisbon? Is that 4 huge country or region guides or four small city guides? We both saw a lot of flaws in the current travel guide model.
CC: “User generated content” seems to be the new buzzword but it does depend on getting users to take the time to generate the content. How did you attract users to the two sites to make contributions?
Evan: I think the main reason people contribute is because they can. They arrive on wikitravel.org and read the pages that are on Wikitravel right now, and in some way or another the page is wrong. There’s a misspelling, or a phone number is incorrect, and people hit the “edit” button and edit the page. They mostly do it out of frustration; it’s like Michele scribbling in our paper guidebooks. But in this case, the corrected listings are shared with the entire Internet. Everybody has the corrected version of the book.
Other people really identify as “travelers” — it’s part of who they are — so becoming heavily involved in Wikitravel lets them express that part of their identity. Some others are really disappointed in the coverage of some region or city by a commercial travel guide, and they want to “set the record straight.” Others want to share their information about their hometown or home state.
Mostly I think people believe in the idea – that travelers’ best information source is other travelers. They think it’s logical, and they want to see it work. So they add in whatever knowledge they’ve got to share, and help out in any way they can.
Michele: Wikitravel brings together the travelers’ natural instinct for sharing information with the speed and reach of the Internet and the low threshold for entry of a wiki. It turns travel guides from a one-to-many communication stream to a many-to-many. Anyone who’s sat through a friend’s vacation slides knows that the problem is rarely getting people to contribute. The challenge is focusing all that energy and information into something that is consistent and reliable for other users.
CC: What kinds of policies do you have in place to manage the nature of contributions — to settle disagreements and ensure the content is high quality?
Evan & Michele: When we first started, we had some really strong ideas about what we wanted to do, and we figured we’d take a few months to work on the site on our own. But somehow people heard about it, and all of a sudden we had contributors coming out of nowhere — like the baseball players coming out of the cornfields in Field of Dreams. It’s true – “If you build it, they will come.”
But people didn’t all grok our concept of doing collaborative travel guide – people were just taking the name wiki + travel and interpreting that however they wanted. We wanted people’s input, but if things descended into chaos, we’d have wasted this opportunity.
So we scrambled to come up with some organizing principles for how to structure the guides. Almost immediately, we created a list of our goals and non-goals – what we wanted to do, what we thought was a distraction and off-topic. We also created a list of article templates – standard layouts for each travel guide – and a manual of style that describes how to say things in a consistent way. We want readers to understand any guide on the site after they’ve read another guide; and we want contributors to concentrate on sharing knowledge, rather than re-organizing each guide for each destination (“How should we lay out restaurant listings for Paris? OK, what about for Rome? OK, what about for Santa Barbara?”)
As for disagreements, we’ve always worked in a real consensus-oriented decision-making style. Anything in our manual of style, in our policies, or in the content of the guides is up for discussion. We want everyone to feel like they’ve got a say in how Wikitravel works – that their ideas and opinions matter. When we have a conflict, we try to keep our goals in the forefront, and ask what’s going to make a better travel guide, versus what’s just going to gratify contributors in the short term. We really think that the traveler comes first. Wikitravel isn’t an art-therapy exercise, where what matters is giving the contributor a warm fuzzy feeling; it’s a serious project for making guides that travelers need. We want people to feel satisfied with their work, of course, but when it comes down to personal satisfaction versus the quality of the guides, well, we want to err on the side of quality.
We don’t really have a lot of the typical structures around group decision-making, like votes and referendums and arbitration and such. We think that collaboration requires making decisions together, rather than waging war on each other. So we try to stay more consensus-oriented rather than conflict-oriented. And the fact is that we’re in this project for the long term – things don’t have to be decided right now, we have time to think it through together.
That all said, we’ve left a lot on the cutting room floor in getting to where we are. And now we want to think about the best ways to get it back up front, and let people contribute however they can. We’re really good right now at “we travel” — objective, factual guides, built together, with consensus point of view. We want to expand in the coming year into “me travel” — personal experience, opinions, photo galleries, blogs, reviews. We want to bring that personal dimension of travel information into the equation – we call it the “yin-yang” approach. We think there’s something there for the reader, too.
CC: Do you have stats about the sites?
Evan & Michele: Today, we have about 8800 travel guides in various states of completion on the English version of Wikitravel, and about 14,000 travel guides in all languages. Add to that the 19,000 on, and there’s a whole lot of guidebooks going on!
We cover the entire globe, but places that have pretty intensive travel industries get covered the deepest. We have some really interesting off-the-beaten-path destination guides (like Svalbard, Pencticton, and the Falkland Islands), which I think are the biggest beneficiaries of the wiki model of travel guide development.
Last count of contributors was somewhere around 6000 registered users, but that’s kind of deceptive since you don’t have to register to contribute. I think our unregistered users are somewhere around 25,000-30,000 — people who’ve changed a page or added a guide without registering.
Our read-to-edit ratio is high — something like 40 or 50 people read an article before one person edits it. But that’s OK – we’re grateful for that one person!
CC: How did you hear about Creative Commons licensing?
Evan & Michele: When we started Wikitravel, we looked to Wikipedia for a model on a lot of the ideas. And Wikipedia was using the GNU Free Documentation License, which when Wikipedia started was really the only game in town for free content licenses. The fact that they started out as “GNUpedia” probably also had something to do with it.
We had a couple of problems with the GFDL, though. It requires that the full license be included with every copy of the work. While that’s not a burden for an encyclopedia or software manual, it’s a real hassle for someone distributing 2&nash;3-page printouts of a travel guide if they have to have to include 12 pages of boring legal text. Also, the GFDL has requirements for distribution of the source code — again, something that doesn’t make sense for small distributors of short works.
And we really see those small distributors as some of the big re-distributors of our guides. B&Bs, hotels, tourist information offices, teachers on field trips — there are a lot of people who can benefit from having a lot of printed handouts of Wikitravel guides handy. We gave out copies of the Montreal guide to each of the guests at our 2004 wedding — and people really appreciated it.
So, we started looking around at other Open Content licenses. I think the main reason we heard from them was from the FSF site, which had this self-righteous screed about them, since you could just include the URL of the license, rather than the whole license, and maybe in the flying-car future, by the time copyright expired, URLs would be no longer used. I was like, “Just the URL? That’s just what we need!“
Looking over the licenses themselves, and at the material on creativecommons.org, we thought that the licenses made a lot more sense for us than the software-manual-oriented GFDL, which had all this confusing stuff about Front Cover Text and Back Cover Matter and all these things that just didn’t apply in our case.
At the time in summer 2003, the CC 1.0 licenses were only about 6 months old, but we thought it was a good bet that they’d continue to gain momentum and that people would understand the Creative Commons idea well into the future.
CC: Why did you decide to apply a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license to the sites?
Evan & Michele: We wanted to get the CC license that was closest in spirit to the GFDL, so that contributors who were used to Wikipedia would understand that they had about the same deal on Wikitravel as they did there. And the copyleft provisions in the by-sa 1.0 license seemed to be the best fit.
We really wanted the license to represent a deal between contributors and the site, and between contributors and the rest of the world. We thought that people who put a lot of work into a travel guidebook at least deserve attribution — the respect of recognition of their work. And we thought that the copyleft ShareAlike requirements were a way to ask readers and redistributors to “pay it forward” for the favor of the shared information. Copyleft keeps a community orientation — it keeps the collaboration flowing.
We avoided some of the other license elements, like NonCommercial. It’s always been one of our goals to have commercial travel guidebooks include Wikitravel information in them. We want people to have up-to-date, reliable content, and however they get it, that’s OK with us. Putting a non-commercial requirement on the guides would really cut out a lot of the channels of people getting that data.
CC: Have you had any feedback — whether positive or negative — from contributors to or users of the site about the use of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license?
Evan & Michele: I think the biggest feedback we’ve had has been that the strong copyleft provisions of both the BY-SA 1.0 and the GFDL make it hard to share text, images, and so forth between Wikitravel and Wikipedia (or other Wikimedia sites). I’ve got mixed feelings about the matter; I think that for the most part encyclopedia pages aren’t really that good as travel guides. The way you talk about a city in an encyclopedia is different from the perspective you take in a travel guide. A travel guide has hotel listings, opening hours of restaurants, prices for admission to museums, directions to get to bars, and so many other things that just wouldn’t go in an encyclopedia article. That’s the other reason that people don’t carry encyclopedias in their suitcases when they travel.
But mostly we’ve had really good feedback. People understand that Creative Commons means sharing what you know, and they like that idea. CC is a big part of how we get the Wikitravel idea across to users.
CC: In April 2006, Internet Brands, Inc. (“IB”), an operator of consumer information websites, acquired Wikitravel. Did they have any comments or concerns about the use of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license?
Evan & Michele:When they first approached us, we felt like we had to explain the license: “You know this is all under a CC license, right?” But IB totally understood where we were going with Wikitravel, and they embraced it. They think that the license, and the impression that readers and contributors get from the license, is key to the success of the site.No Comments »
The DigiBarn is a computer museum located in a 90-year-old barn in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. It is also an online repository of Creative Commons-licensed photos, video, audio, and technical documentation that tell the history of personal computing. The DigiBarn’s collections include small and big computers, game systems, software, and schwag.
We recently spoke with the DigiBarn’s curator, Bruce Damer about the museum and its use of CC licensing.
Creative Commons: What is the DigiBarn project? How did it start?
Bruce Damer: The DigiBarn is a large physical collection of computing artifacts that is housed in a barn in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley in Northern California. The DigiBarn is also a sprawling cyber-collection at digibarn.com, which represents both physical artifacts and thousands of community contributions that tell the story of the invention of personal computing, the graphical user interface, and the digital lifestyle. We go beyond just giving the specs for a given computer to weaving together the stories of those who built the industry. We also showcase all the ephemera — from company t-shirts to software to internal prototypes.
I started collecting this history while working with Xerox and Xerox PARC in the 1980s. I formally commissioned the physical museum in 2001 with the help of my friend and neighbor Allan Lundell, a well known video chronicler of Valley history and the first west coast editor of Byte magazine. Behind the project are literally thousands of contributors and hundreds of volunteers who have emptied their garages, told us their stories, and done heavy lifting for the physical and online exhibits.
CC: What are your goals for the DigiBarn?
BD: To capture the story of the birth of personal computing and the origins of the digital lifestyle we are all now living. The artifacts and the story are rapidly being lost and every week someone passes away who had something to contribute to the telling of that story. In a decade or two most of the people who brought us the modern computing world will be gone. In the meantime we are trying to capture oral histories from these people, both the famous and the not-so-famous.
CC: In what ways does the DigiBarn use Creative Commons licensing?
BD: A key goal of the project was to collect and deliver our shared computing heritage to the public for noncommercial use, hence our choice of the Creative Commons framework. In fact, we were very early adopters, supporting the beta testing phase of CC back in 2002, and the DigiBarn site was featured content at the CC launch.
We provide noncommercial share-alike (with attribution) use of hundreds of thousands of photos, written stories, tech specs, scanned documents, audio interviews and video shorts about the history of computing from the late 1940s to today. From artists using our vintage computer photos to produce cool video mixes to academics writing papers and books, thousands of CC-licensed DigiBarn digital objects have found their way into the culture.
CC: How has the DigiBarn grown over the years?
BD: The DigiBarn is well on its way to having a complete collection of every model of significant personal computer (along with all associated materials) from 1975 to the late 80s. We stop collecting artifacts after about 1990, as by that date innovation and diversity in hardware and software was slowing and most computers were pretty much commodity items produced by a few manufacturers. We have also focused on early workstations including the Xerox Alto and Star, which were the first networked machines with graphical interfaces and mice. The only large systems we have are two Cray supercomputers (a Cray 1 and Cray Q2 prototype). These are impressive machines and true things of beauty. Since the web site launched in 1998, the cyber-collection has swelled to over a half million objects.
CC: You also curate a collection of key technical documentation. Can you talk a bit about your experience with this?
BD: Some of our key technical documentation, including video and audio interviews with key innovators, has begun to upset the apple cart in the patent domain. Our November 2004 30th birthday event for “Maze War,” the first-ever first-person shooter, uncovered so much prior art that Sony contacted us about several patent challenges on multi-player gaming. It turns out that by recovering the history of “Maze War,” we had knocked the wind out of several patent claims, which are now headed to settlement instead of to court. In a sense, each bit of digital archeology we dig up and publish openly under CC could roll back the invention envelope, protecting basic innovations in common use from being restricted through inappropriate granting of new patents.
There is another case regarding several loads of original documentation that contained some of Apple Computer’s key early business plans, prototypes and technical design documents. Some of this material had recently been ordered discarded by Apple management, yet these documents were key to understanding the history of Apple and where early innovations came from. It could also have been argued that these records Apple was abandoning were in fact part of a common cultural heritage. The DigiBarn accepted the donations with the full understanding by the donors that they would be made available to the world under CC license and there was no objection. You can see several of these contributions including the Woz Wonderbook and the Preliminary Macintosh Business Plan – 12 July 1981 on our site. More of these fascinating documents will be posted soon.
CC: How can people help the DigiBarn project?
BD: The DigiBarn is an all-volunteer effort with significant personal outlays of funds and time. We are hoping to find financial support to cover at least some of our volunteers’ time and for basic infrastructural improvements to the barn building (we have a big winter moisture problem to solve on the lower floor). We are therefore seeking donors of both funds and other forms of support to keep this effort going. We may establish a foundation for urgent oral history capture if such support can be found. If anyone out there is interested in helping out, please contact us.
We would like to thank Professor Lessig and the Creative Commons team for giving us a legal framework that has made the DigiBarn project possible. We are always encouraging other museums and collectors to adopt CC licensing as we feel it is an important vehicle that makes it possible to place historical digital archives into a container of commonly shared cultural heritage.No Comments »
Lulu lets creators set the license terms, including Creative Commons licenses, for their works as part of the publishing process. Authors can also set the price at which they wish to sell their content. There is no set-up fee and no minimum orders.
Anyone can search for works published on Lulu by license type.
Lulu was founded by Bob Young, who was also the co-founder of Red Hat, a leading open source company. Mia Garlick from Creative Commons caught up with Stephen Fraser from Lulu to learn more about Lulu’s service and their use of Creative Commons licensing.
Creative Commons (“CC”): Lulu was started 4 years ago. Can you explain a little about the reasons that lead to Lulu being established?
Stephen Fraser (“SF”): After stepping down as chairman of his previous company, Red Hat, Bob Young created Lulu.com. His intention was to create a business model that fostered a more open marketplace for intellectual property, a marketplace that didn’t require creators to give up control of their content or the rights associated with that content.
Lulu.com provides on-demand publishing tools for digital content including books, ebooks, music, images, custom calendars, software and video. We are not a publisher, but a technology company giving individuals the power to publish independently. Most of our business comes from books, which can be printed on demand or downloaded. We are, I think, the largest print-on-demand service for books in the world at this point.
Self-publishing, of course, is not new. But new technology has changed the idea of self-publishing a great deal. Greater connectivity and access to tools for creating content have given individuals an unprecedented ability to produce and share their own media. Books–along with videos, music, software and other media–are now often created, distributed and owned by individuals rather than big companies.
One way to look at the changes brought about by Lulu.com in the publishing world is to compare Lulu to Blogger, LiveJournal or MySpace.com. Before blogging tools were available, individuals could still publish their own web sites; it just required a lot of effort. Blog technology (and more recently sites like MySpace.com) made it possible for anyone—of any age or technical ability—to publish and update a web site. The result was an explosion of content, much of it uninteresting, but taken together representing a media revolution. Similarly, before Lulu.com came along it was certainly possible to publish your own book. But by making book publishing technology free and accessible to anyone, Lulu.com has become part of a revolution (a revo-lulu-tion) in print publishing.
CC: Can you provide an overview of how an author, musician, filmmaker or photographer can use Lulu’s site to publish their work(s)?
SF: In the simplest terms, to publish something on Lulu.com a creator must register, choose to start a new publishing project, enter a project description that includes the copyright license information, upload a file, specify format and accessibility options, and then set the amount of money he or she plans to earn for each copy sold. For those interested in distribution but not profit, giving content away is also an option.
Publishing electronic content is quite straightforward, as is creating a photo calendar using your own digital images. Publishing a book is a bit more complicated, which—with over 1,200 new titles per week—doesn’t seem to slow people down much
From a technical standpoint, if you are a book publisher you will want to come to the process with your book already designed and typeset to one of Lulu.com’s available trim sizes. If you have access to layout software, creating your own PDF with the fonts embedded is ideal, but our system can also convert .rtf, .xml, .html,..doc files and the like into press-ready PDFs.
Once you have uploaded the body of your book, you can upload one .JPG for your front cover and another for your back cover, choose from a gallery of existing images, or create a wrap-around .JPG file with both covers and the spine of your book. As complicated as it is, we designed the Lulu publishing process to accommodate experts who design books professionally as well as complete novices, so it really offers quite a few options as you go along.
After you have made the content available, you (or, if you have made it publicly available, anyone else) can buy a printed copy. The order process is straightforward, and once ordered a book is manufactured and shipped within about three business days. Any book on Lulu.com can be ordered from anywhere in the world. As of this month, Lulu.com books ordered from Europe will actually be printed and shipped in Europe as well. The site is now available in French, Spanish, Italian, German and Dutch as well as in English.
While publishing a book is free, at any point a book publisher can also choose to pay a fee to add an ISBN and global distribution to his or her title. Adding ISBN distribution allows the book to be sold through the worldwide web sites of retailers like Amazon.com and BN.com, and to be ordered by bookstores.
CC: Lulu’s Advanced Search lets members of the public search for works by copyright license including for works that they can: copy and distribute; use even for commercial purposes; and, modify, adapt, or build upon. A search by these license terms reveals some 300 works that are licensed on flexible terms including the Free Documentation License, the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license and Creative Commons’ Public Domain Dedication. Why did Lulu decide to include these specific license options in its publishing process?
SF: Hmmm. I just ran the same search and got about 370 or so items using one of the three standard CC licenses. But while we chose to offer those three licenses in the standard options, in fact anyone publishing content on Lulu.com can enter their own license description if they choose to do so; and many have. The standard options consist of what we perceived to be the most commonly requested licensing alternatives. We chose to leave the other licenses out of the standard choices just to make the process as simple as possible.
CC: How can an author who uses Lulu’s service choose to apply one of these licenses to their work?
SF: Choosing the license that will appear in your published item’s description page is one of the options appearing on the second page of the publishing wizard. As I mentioned, in addition to the standard options, creators are free to enter any text license they wish. Our system does not embed the license in the work, however, so a book publisher would want to insert the license terms on the copyright page of his or her book so that it appears in the printed versions.
CC: In Lulu’s experience, are some types of works are more likely to be flexible licensed than others?
SF: The greatest number of flexible licenses on Lulu.com are appear on content in the music category, where creators are most likely to be motivated by the desire to get exposure for their work. It’s also true that, apart from inhabiting a culture of sharing and creative reuse, many musicians use Lulu.com primarily as a means to host their files rather than as a marketplace for selling their music. That cannot be said of the community of Lulu authors, who by and large sell their work through Lulu.com.
CC: What kind of feedback, if any, has Lulu had from either authors or members of the public about the availability of this flexible licensing as part of Lulu’s publishing service?
SF: Demand from the creator community is the reason Lulu offers those licenses! Despite being early supporters of Creative Commons, we were slow to offer the licenses on our site because our team was so busy with other features. But eventually we had to make Creative Commons options available, because as a company we pay close attention to what members of the Lulu community talk about and request. While the flexibly licensed works constitute a minority of the total number of books published on Lulu.com, the folks who use them carry a lot of weight with us. As a technology, Lulu.com is designed around the principal of offering creators more control over the distribution and sale of their work. That means designing a system that gives authors, musicians, and others as many choices as possible, both in licensing and every other respect!No Comments »
INTERVIEW BY CC Mexico
The Sistema de Internet de la Presidencia (or Presidency Internet System) (“SIP”) is the office in charge of generating and publishing all of the Mexican President Vicente Fox’s content and information over the Internet. They host and maintain various websites including the Presidency’s main website, “México en Línea” the Presidency’s Internet radio station, and “Software Libre” Presidency’s website for using the FLOSS project. León Felipe Sánchez, of our CC Mexico team, interviewed Luis Alberto Bolaños (pictured on the right) and Emiliio Saldaña (pictured on the left) to explain why Creative Commons licenses caught the Mexican Presidency’s attention. A Spanish version of this interview is available here.
Creative Commons (“CC”): How did you find out about Creative Commons and its project in Mexico?
SIP: As part of our activities within SIP we try to keep up to date with the leading technologies and trends in digital environments. One of our core activities is the work with FLOSS, which is how we learned about the Creative Commons project which attracted our attention because of its flexible range of licenses that can be tailored to the specific needs and interests of the Presidency’s communication and transparency programs.
CC: What made you decide to adopt Creative Commons licenses for all the content generated by the Mexican Presidency on the Internet?
SIP: We carried out extensive research on copyright protection and licensing and analyzed the Presidency’s specific needs to make its content available to the people. After this research we were delighted to find that Creative Commons licenses enabled us to protect our content in a more flexible way than the default “all rights reserved” status quo, thereby contributing to one of our main objectives, which is to make all the information available to as many people as possible. This is a key issue for the Presidency because we want our content to be used and distributed by researchers, academics, students, press members and the general public. Through Creative Commons’ licenses, the Presidency is able to ensure the free distribution, reproduction and diffusion of its content at no cost, thereby encouraging people to share while preventing unauthorized commercial use with licenses that fully comply with Mexican copyright legislation.
CC: What impact has this decision had on the Mexican Internet radio community and other program producers?
SIP: Collaboration between the Mexican government and Creative Commons Mexico is still at an initial stage. As a government Internet radio proposal, “México en Línea” is an innovative project which we trust will encourage other government entities to adopt the Creative Commons licensing scheme. This will emphasize the state’s recognition of the fact that the content belongs to the people while preventing unauthorized commercial use of such content and information yet not affecting its distribution and reproduction which, in the case of government statements and information, is very important for reaching as many people as we can.
CC: What impact or implications do you think the adoption of Creative Commons’ licenses might have on the governmental environment?
SIP: Both the impact and implications will be very positive because through the adoption of these licenses, we guarantee that the content generated by the Presidency remains the property of the people and that it is available free of charge. The use of Creative Commons’ licenses is a step towards a new government with very high standards of openness as regards information that will contribute to the administration’s levels of transparency, thereby guaranteeing that information will always be available to the people that need it. As we said, we want to set an example to help other government entities make their information available as well benefiting the community.
CC: How does Creative Commons fit into the government FLOSS project which you lead?
SIP: The use of Creative Commons’ licenses strengthens the work philosophy underlying the way the Presidency’s Internet System directs this project. It represents the spirit in which almost all of the content generated by the government is administrated actually. In other words, Creative Commons’ licenses have helped us make access to information more democratic.
CC: What is your vision about the role that FLOSS and open access to information technologies will play in the future of Mexico?
SIP: The use of FLOSS is a growing trend, especially within government, because it has enormous benefits such as, for example, the savings made from not having to buy software licenses. However, the most important fact is that taking advantage of open technologies and open distribution methods increases the transparency and efficiency of government operations, the process of documenting working procedures and the generation of knowledge databases, in this case in systems that enable us to increase the number of better government practices very simply.No Comments »
CC BY-NC — Courtesy of Second Life
Second Life, the virtual world created in 2003, has recently been hosting various “free culture” related events in world. Mia Garlick caught up with Wagner James Au, who writes the blog New World Notes as an embedded journalist in Second Life, to learn more about these events and how people who are interested in Creative Commons in real life can get involved in CC and “free culture” events in Second Life.
Mia Garlick (“MG”): For those who don’t already know, can you explain a little about Second Life?
Wagner James Au (“WJA”): Second Life is a user-created 3D online world—almost everything you see in it was built with the internal building and scripting tools. Residents retain IP rights to all their creations, and can do with them as they please. As of today (February 10, 2006), there are well over 135,000 members, and it’s growing at nearly 5,000 a week.
MG: You recently had Creative Commons’ CEO & Chairman Lawrence Lessig appear, using his own special avatar, in Second Life. Can you give some background information about how this came about and also, why the Second Life community would be so interested in the issues & law of copyright and technology?
WJA: A longtime Resident, Eggy Lippman, is the proprietor of an SL history Wiki, and was helping a student of Professor Lessig’s with a research paper on the world. As Second Life’s embedded journalist, I run an ongoing book club series where I bring established authors into SL to discuss their books— Ellen Ullman, Cory Doctorow, and Thomas *Pentagon’s New Map* Barnett. Eggy suggested this as an idea for Larry to his student, the student brought it to Larry’s attention, Larry contacted me, I had a heart attack, but from there it was all logistics. Some ten Lindens and a handful of Residents jumped in to turn it into a huge event. Resident Lilith Pendragon created Larry’s avatar to eerily resemble him, while Falk Bergman imported the full text to Free Culture into a virtual edition of the book which can be read in–world—and thanks to his autograph technology, signed by Lawrence Lessig himself, at the click of a mouse. Check out these screenshots.
In a very real sense, Second Life exists as it does because of Lawrence Lessig. A few years ago, he advised Linden Lab to allow their subscribers to retain IP rights to whatever they built. The result of this has been an explosion of sustained creativity, with many Residents making all or some of their real life living by their imagination and efforts in SL. As I told the Linden Lab staff after Larry offered to appear in world, “This is like Thomas Jefferson suddenly returning to the US to see what his ideas had inspired.”
MG: Second Life recently held an in world meeting to discuss planning and ideas for “free culture” events. What lead to this meeting being held?
WJA: After Larry’s appearance in Second Life, which attracted a huge overflow crowd (easily 300 or more), there was a lot of enthusiasm for more events related to Free Culture, the Second Life group I created to reserve spots for that event. Fortunately, Larry told me he had a great time in Second Life and was willing to do more such projects, so we’ve taken it from there. That meeting a couple weekends ago was one of the first to plan future events, most of which will take donations to Creative Commons through the non–profit’s Paypal account (which has been set to Larry’s Second Life account.)
MG: What does Second Life and the Second Life community hope to grow out of these “free culture” meeting?
WJA: Speaking for myself, I’d love to see a more active relationship between the Second Life community of creators, who already “get” the philosophy of Creative Commons in an emotional and cultural sense, with Creative Commons the real world movement. I would want anyone passionate about a new kind of “rip, mix, burn” creativity to take their energies into Second Life, which is already a kind of 3D wiki built with those ideals.
MG: What can people who are interested in Free Culture issues do to participate in and assist the development of “free culture” in Second Life?
WJA: Well, first get a Second Life account and join the Free Culture group, already some 150+ strong. Within the Second Life interface, that’s as easy as clicking Find>Groups>entering “Free Culture” in the find slot, and clicking Join. Also drop by the Free Culture group forum in Second Life.com (you need your SL account info to get in): http://forums.secondlife.com/forumdisplay.php?f=265.
Most importantly, bring your passion for free culture to Second Life, for no matter what your specific interest, you’ll find others just as enthused. Already in the works are plans for bringing CC–themed film festival, music festivals, art festivals, and more, into Second Life itself. (Not to mention events that will feature Larry himself, in avatar form.) Come on in, contact one of the Free Culture officers, and join the fun.No Comments »
Pamela Jones is the founder and editor of Groklaw, an award-winning Web site that conducts complex legal research using an approach inspired by open source. What started out as a one-woman operation in 2003 has grown to a full-fledged community with hundreds of contributors and millions of daily visitors. Focused primarily on issues that concern the FOSS community, Groklaw has become a must-read source of news and information for legal and technology professionals.
We recently spoke with Jones about her site’s origins and how applying a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 license to her articles has helped her promote her work.
Creative Commons: What are the origins of Groklaw? What were your goals for the site when you started it?
Pamela Jones: I started by just trying to learn how to blog in connection with a job interview, and you have to write about something, so I wrote about what I knew and found most interesting, which is IP law, writing about cases in the news. I wasn’t expecting anyone to read what I was writing.
It wasn’t until people showed up in numbers that I realized the potential for applying open source principles to legal research. I understood that many of my readers knew more about tech than I did, and I knew more about the law than most of them did, being a paralegal. I also knew that lawyers are typically the last ones on the tech train, and I thought that it would be fun and creative to explain everything I knew about researching for a case and see if my tech readers would turn up information that would be useful. I was sure they could, if it was out there. At the same time, I thought lawyers reading Groklaw, and there are many of them, would benefit from understanding tech issues better. I saw myself as a mediator, introducing the two groups to each other, so they could be more effective together. It proved to be a successful experiment.
The idea was to follow a case daily, explaining as we went along. I started with several cases, and I watched to see which one seemed most interesting to people, and the SCO v. IBM case won hands down. So, after some time, I focused on that case, although we always had news of a general IP nature too, and eventually we covered patents and standards, anything that is of interest to the FOSS community. We actually have 8 or 9 topics now that we regularly cover, including one ongoing book, being written in installments for Groklaw by Dr. Peter Salus.
Our Groklaw Mission Statement explains what our goals were.
CC: How did you decide that Creative Commons licensing was right for your work?
PJ: Groklaw is a noncommercial site, and I knew I’d be keeping it that way, so it would always be independent. So my two interests were to disseminate information widely and to prevent others from making money from my work, when I wasn’t. I also wanted some measure of control over who used my hard work, but I wanted less than copyright provides, so it was a natural decision.
CC: What have been the benefits of using a CC license?
PJ: Groklaw’s articles, the ones under the CC license (sometimes individual contributors do choose a different license or straight copyright and comments are not under the CC license, so we provide an articles-only section for bots and those wishing to mirror) are widely mirrored and republished around the world. So my goal of widely disseminating the information was definitely achieved, remarkably so.
And another benefit is that I’m not annoyed with endless requests to reprint. Sometimes people who don’t understand the CC license will write anyway, so I truly see how time-consuming it would be to have to go through that with each and every person wishing to republish. It’s a real time-saver, well adapted to the Internet. And when Groklaw became popular, time became my least abundant asset.
It also has proven a protection. There have been a couple of times when articles were inappropriately reused by commercial entities, and I’ve been able to resolve such matters effectively.
CC: Are you surprised by Groklaw’s popularity?
PJ: Beyond words. I can’t tell you what a shock it is to see how many people really love Groklaw. I’m so shy by nature, it’s been an adjustment, a major adjustment, to learn to deal with it, but overall, I’d say it’s been good for me to have to grow. Or grow up. Finally.
It was a major, major adjustment for me, though, one that I still struggle with. I am sure, though, that part of Groklaw’s popularity is because of the depth of feeling people have for the subject. IP law has become important to everyone, because of the Internet and blogging. Anyone and everyone is now a publisher, so the laws affect us all, yet most people don’t understand the laws or worse, they misunderstand them. That’s not good. I thought about my family and all my friends, how they’d ask me to explain things in the news, and I thought, why not write just like that, to explain the process as if to a friend or family member over dinner who asks you, ‘Say, what’s this case all about? Why is such and so happening? What will happen?’ I might be just a paralegal, but I could at least explain the paralegal part. I love to write, it turns out, and I like helping and explaining, so it worked out. I do think that is the source of Groklaw’s popularity – that people are relieved to understand things that were like Greek to them before.
A half dozen of Groklaw’s readers have decided to go to law school, by the way. I love that, and I’m very proud of it, because part of my goal from day one was to share the love I feel for the law, and the respect I have for the process. And I think it’s terribly important that computer programmers and other tech-savvy people go to law school, so that someone can explain to judges (and later become judges) so decisions made will be based on tech comprehension and not on FUD or gross misunderstanding of how computers actually work.No Comments »
Photo © Greg Gorman / Santa Fe
Ottmar Liebert composes, performs and records music in a Nouveau Flamenco style, which mixes elements of flamenco with jazz, bossa nova, and other genres. Seven of his albums have gone platinum and two other albums gold; he has also been nominated for a Grammy.
At Ottmar’s and the Lunanerga site you can both buy CDs and merchandise and, via the Listening Lounge, enjoy music licensed under the Creative Commons Sampling Plus license. The Listening Lounge offers tracks as well as loops and parts. Musicians Jon Gagan, t-one, Canton and Steve Stephen also offer their music via the Listening Lounge.
Creative Commons (“CC”): When did you start recording and performing music? How did you first hear about Creative Commons?
Ottmar Liebert (“OL”): I have been playing guitar since I was eleven years old. I arrived in the USA in May of 1979 and starting out as a dishwasher. I have also worked as a bank teller and a bike messenger. I played in a rockband in Boston for several years. In 1986 I moved to Santa Fe and started playing classical guitar in restaurants. I took Flamenco lessons and recorded “Nouveau Flamenco” in 1989. That album was released in 1990 by Higher Octave Music and sold over 2 million copies. After recording three albums for Higher Octave I signed with Epic Records and stayed with them from 1991 through 2001. I first discovered Creative Commons a couple of years ago by following a link to Professor Lessig’s site.
CC: What attracted you to the idea of Creative Commons?
OL: When I was a teenager, copyright lasted 50 years; now it lasts for much longer. In a time where the wheel turns much faster, we should not extend copyrights. Nowadays corporations are allowed to copyright ideas, mere notions of technology that doesn’t even exist yet. Why would anybody want to invent something that some corporation has already claimed in theory. We are building fences around land we haven’t even approached yet….
I feel that artists create not only in order to experience the process of creation itself, but also for the ripples. I find that the act of creating is like throwing a pebble into a still lake to watch the ripples. Being able to share my work via a CC license enables me to experience more ripples. Sometimes the ripples can inspire more work in me.
CC: Why did you choose the Sampling Plus license for your music?
OL: Musicians sample one another one way or another. Whether actual samples are used or a cool sound, riff or feel is actually re-created. Might as well officially allow it and even encourage it (see also my answer to the last questions and the concept of ripples)
I am genuinely interested in hearing what other musicians might do with some of my work. In the past I have commissioned people to remix some of my work—this is going a step further.
As a musician I want to take part in the larger cultural landscape, want to see my ideas noted, accepted, reflected, used or otherwise messed with. I want to be swimming in the river of culture, to partake of that larger experience. The Sampling Plus license lets other people know that I am open to that engagement, that exchange.
I read a book by the Japanese Zen Master Uchiyama called “Opening the Hand of Thought.” Using a Sampling Plus license does that for me.
CC: At the Listening Lounge, you offer loops and parts of your tracks, in addition to the completed track. What was the reasoning behind this?
OL: I am not just allowing people to sample the music, I am enabling them to do it by offering isolated tracks. More ripples. And it is theoretically potential business because I can sell the same piece of music as a stereo mix as well as in the form of isolated tracks.
CC: What has been the reaction of fans and visitors to the Listening Lounge?
OL: I feel that introducing people to the Listening Lounge and downloading in general is a process that will take some time. That process is partly one of education. For example, fans have expressed that they prefer to buy the “original” rather than a download and I have to explain that CDs are not original at all. They are no less copies than a download would be. In fact downloading is much more direct than buying a CD in a store.
I think some fans are realizing the advantages of the Listening Lounge. I started a new download-only album of solo-guitar improvisations called “Tears in the Rain.” The pieces are uploaded as they are recorded, rather than waiting for a complete album or manufacturing a CD. A PDF for the album is also available for download with drawings and some writing. At first fans asked for a complete CD release, but soon they discovered how exciting it is to hear music as it is created, since I usually upload the “Tears in the Rain” pieces within a few hours of creating them.
One interesting reaction came from Mark Hamilton’s blog “Notes from a Teacher” who says of the Listening Lounge:
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“This really is an amazing site, and obviously the product of someone who has thought long and hard about distributing music in a way that gives fans a range of choices and an enjoyable experience. In short, it treats those who visit as music lovers, not consumers.”
Kembrew McLeod is currently an Assistant Professor, University of Iowa, Department of Communication Studies. In addition to being an academic, Kembrew is a self-professed prankster. In 1998 he trademarked the phrase “Freedom of Expression®” as a comment on how the intellectual property law is being used to fence off culture and restrict the way in which people can express their ideas. He is the author of two books: “Owning Culture” and, most recently, “Freedom of Expression®: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity“.
The book “Freedom of Expression®” was released online under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/). Kembrew is currently making a documentary based on the second chapter of the book “Copyright Criminals: This is a Sampling Sport“. Excerpts of the documentary are currently online at the Internet Archive licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. This documentary also inspired music that has been uploaded and remixed on the Creative Commons ccMixter site.
Both the book and the documentary make for a fascinating look at the creative process for many artists for whom sampling, recontextualization and referencing and ‘borrowing’ from the works of others is their artform.
Creative Commons’ Mia Garlick caught up with Kembrew and asked him about his experience of using Creative Commons licenses and tools.
Creative Commons (“CC”): How did you come to decide to release your book “Freedom of Expression®” online under a Creative Commons license? How did your publisher respond to your decision?
Kembrew McLeod (“KM”): While working on “Freedom of Expression®”, I always knew I would vigorously try to convince Doubleday/Random House to release a PDF file version of my book under a Creative Commons license although I suspected that Doubleday/Random House’s response would be “no way.” After all, the parent company of Random House is Bertelsmann, the media giant that also owns one of the major labels that is suing downloaders, so I didn’t think they would exactly jump for joy at my proposal.
Then Larry Lessig released his book “Free Culture”, that was published by Penguin books (another media giant publisher) online under a Creative Commons license; it made the news, and eventually it filtered back to my editor, Gerry Howard, who is a truly extraordinary person, and a really cool rock ‘n’ roll dude (not to mention a legend in the editing world). Gerry deserves the credit for getting Random House and its lawyers to go along with the idea. However, I don’t think I ever would have gotten any traction if Larry hadn’t convinced already another major press of the merits of a Creative Commons license.
CC: Have you had any reaction or comments from members of the public about your online release of the book under a Creative Commons license?
KM: It has been a truly gratifying experience to have the PDF version freely available, especially because (with the exception of Japan, where it is being translated for publication), my book “Freedom of Expression®” has no overseas distribution. I have heard from someone at a UN office in Switzerland, who shares my research interests, as well as others from various European, Asian, and African countries. Not coincidentally, soon after the book was released I was invited to speak at a really interesting event to be held this October 14-15, 2005, in Budapest, Hungary, called: “RE:activism: Re-drawing the boundaries of activism in a new media environment.”
CC: You have been selling hardcopies of your book as well. Do you feel that the online release of your book under a Creative Commons license has had any impact on the hardcopy sales?
KM: When I placed the Creative Commons-licensed PDF version online a week after it had been released, Larry Lessig endorsed my book on his blog — providing links to both the free PDF version on my website, and to Amazon. After that, my Amazon ranking (of course, not the most scientific indicator of sales, but an indicator nonetheless) shot way, way up after he posted his recommendation. Honestly, I think I got more publicity from that event than anything else surrounding the release of the book. After all, my book did not receive even a millionth of the promotion muscle of, say, Harry Potter, so the Creative Commons-prompted publicity definitely helped. It also seemed to be a positive karmic act of good faith, given the nature of what I argue in the book.
CC: You are in the process of making a documentary about the second chapter of your book – “Copyright Criminals: This is a Sampling Sport“. You used the Creative Commons ccPublisher tool to upload the video for free hosting at Internet Archive. What was your experience of using the ccPublisher tool?
KM: It was really simple and easy! It took me less than one minute to do it, and I’ve recommended this tool to everyone who has asked about Creative Commons licenses. My co-producer, Ben Franzen, and I had already placed our 10-minute work-in-progress version of Copyright Criminals under a Creative Commons license. But when we remembered that there is free hosting on the Internet Archive for Creative Commons-licensed works, we quickly uploaded it there after we blew through our bandwidth in only 24 hours.
CC: You also had an interesting experience with our ccMixter site and a remix involving your “Copyright Criminals” documentary. Can you tell us about it?
KM: Straight after we made this early version of “Copyright Criminals” available, someone (Pat Chilla the Beat Gorilla) placed an a capella rap on the ccMixter site that starts out, “It’s the copyright criminals/hit you with a blast from the past… .”
Shortly after this track was uploaded, many different remixes appeared that reworked this a capella. To date, there are 9 different remixes. Next time we do another Creative Commons-licensed cut of our work-in-progress (the feature length version won’t be finished until sometime in 2006), we are intending to use Ashwan’s “Chilla Illa Tha Cilla Killa” during the credit sequence.
This is an example of one of those gratifying creative feedback loops that makes Creative Commons so attractive for so many different kinds of people. I am glad it happened.No Comments »
Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer are the members of The Lonely Island, an LA-based comedy collective, who have released much of their music and video shorts online under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.
Also known as “the dudes”, Andy, Jorma and Akiva soon found that they were developing a fan base, some of whom were remixing their music, so they posted these remixes to their site as well.
Earlier this year, “the dudes” shot a pilot for FOX called Awesometown but FOX rejected the pilot. Instead of letting the show wither on a shelf somewhere, the group posted the full video both cut and uncut to their CC-licensed site. The edgy, quirky short spread like wildfire online and eventually landed all three performers jobs on Saturday Night Live (SNL).
In SNL’s Fall 2005 season, Andy Samberg will join as a new cast member, while Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer will join the show as writers.
Creative Commons asked Andy, Jorma and Akiva to explain a little about what had led them down the Creative Commons route & their experience along the way.
Creative Commons (“CC”): How did you hear about Creative Commons?
The Lonely Island (“TLI”): We first started posting our comedy shorts, songs and music videos on the web in 2001. Some of our work involves parodies and remixing, so we were thrilled when our fans began sending us remixed versions of our songs. We even sent some of them the acapella vocal tracks to work with and posted the results. Akiva’s brother suggested we check out the Creative Commons project. Around the same time, our friend DJ Danger Mouse was stirring up a bunch of controversy with the Grey Album.
Ultimately we discovered that by continuing to do what we were already doing and then adding a Creative Commons deed to the page, we could protect ourselves, and our fans. That’s what sold us on it. It lets everyone know that they are free to share and remix our stuff, all the rules are right there – they don’t even need to ask permission. It’s really a win-win.
CC: What attracted the dudes to the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike or BY-NC-SA license?
TLI: The BY-NC-SA seemed like a safe and fair choice. It covers probably 99.99% of our audience’s needs, and anyone who would like to do more with something is free to contact us. Occasionally a commercial website or television network will ask for permission to use a video. We evaluate each offer and sometimes we’ll arrange for a nominal licensing fee.
CC: What were the kinds of reactions (both positive and negative) you experienced as a result of choosing to license the pilot under a Creative Commons license?
TLI: We’re really encouraged by the reaction so far. A lot of people heard about it through Defamer and BoingBoing and the response has been great. Still, many of our viewers don’t notice the Creative Commons license or understand what it is, so we’ve been thinking of some fun ways to get more of them involved. In the meantime, we’re really busy with our new jobs, so we’re grateful we got this opportunity to start spreading the word.No Comments »
On first glance — brown hair, pale skin, and undergrad-style clothes — Rich Baraniuk looks like an average guy. But look at his eyes, and you know you’re in the presence of something rare. They’re giant and brown and fairly glowing with the light of the millions of synapses firing at the same instant. They’re the eyes of a man who can’t sit still, of a guy bursting with animation, drive, pep, zest, zing, zip. All of which are necessary given the task Baraniuk took on three years ago, when he decided to write a book and ended up trying to change the way people — everywhere on the planet — think.
Like a lot of guys out to change the world, Baraniuk started out with a modest agenda. An electrical and computer engineering professor at Rice University in Houston, he’d been teaching for about six years when he finally decided that the textbooks he was using weren’t doing their job. They weren’t helping his students learn as much as they should, and they didn’t support his teaching style. He decided he’d write a new, better textbook. So he went to the dean of the school of engineering and proposed the idea. The dean laughed. “Rich came in and said he needed to write a new, better book to teach his course,” says Dean C. Sidney Burrus. “I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. There’re already about 100 books on this subject. You’re going to write the 101st? Think of something new.’ And he did.”
That something new is called Connexions. As described in one of the many documents Baraniuk and the team he leads have used to raise funding, it’s “an experimental, open-source/open content project . . . that gives a learner . . . free access to educational materials that can be readily manipulated to suite her individual learning style. . . . The free software tools also foster the development, manipulation, and continuous refinement of educational material by diverse communities of authors and teachers.”
What does that mean, exactly? When it’s up and running, Connexions will offer an online library of networked content that will allow instructors to pick and choose best-of-breed instructional materials. Experts around the world will develop and contribute modules of information specific to their own expertise. These modules — which may take the form of individual chapters, or even smaller sections of chapters — will act as a giant, constantly evolving library of information that can be tweaked to any given instructor’s satisfaction.
By selecting specific modules and then using Connexion’s free, XML-based editing tools to modify the emphasis of a given course, instructors will be able to create custom textbooks. Students could then go to Kinko’s and order a custom text incorporating the latest research, the best pedagogy — tailored to match their professor’s teaching style and the specific goals of the course at hand. Theoretically, the library will function across disciplines, and will aid teachers and students from kindergarten through graduate school. So far, more than 1000 modules now form the basis for nine electrical and computer engineering courses at Rice.
If that sounds ambitious, think about this: Connexions isn’t just about creating a collection of bite-sized informational chunks. It’s also about fostering a quantum leap in the evolution of literacy — something akin to the development of the first written language or the creation of the printing press. “My perspective about this,” says Burrus, “is not that it’s a just a product of one teacher’s frustrations. I think what we’re doing truly has the potential to change the way people think.”
The people at Connexions believe they’ve found a way to do that. Even more miraculously, a number of people — from the folks at the Hewlett Foundation to the administration at Rice to the U.S. Government — think they may be on to something.
Baraniuk’s big idea grew out of his own sense of frustration about the fragmentary way students learn and teachers teach. He was a great teacher — kids loved his classes — but he could see that they were missing a lot of fundamentals. The problem? The way knowledge was split up into discrete units that seemed so far removed from their lives and interests. “The way we teach breaks everything up and makes it discontinuous, ” says Baraniuk. “Kids would come in and say, ‘Why do I have to learn all this math? I’m interested in genetics.’ And after I sat down with them for half and hour and drew it out on a white board them and showed them how math relates to the field they really wanted to know about, how it was absolutely fundamental, they got it, and generally they’d do much better and learn much more.
“Which was great. I love that part of teaching. But my problem was, ‘Well, okay, how do I apply that understanding to a whole classroom full of students? I can’t sit down and explain the connections to each and every person in my lectures. I don’t have that kind of time. And I finally thought, ‘Wow, there’s just gotta be a better way.’”
Baraniuk’s main beef with traditional teaching and textbooks is that they’re too linear. Subjects are broken up into discrete units, and then never reconnected. Textbooks mirror this flaw in that they are completely linear, and depending on the particular focus of a course, tend to offer a great deal of irrelevant or redundant information, while failing to cast any illumination on vital subjects. Even worse, by the time they make it through writing, editing, school board reviews, publishing and finally into students hands, textbooks — especially in the fast moving sciences — are often obsolete.
By shaping raw knowledge into discrete chunks rather than 2000-page textbooks, Connexions aims to scratch a real-world itch that’s long been unreachable. Instructors will be able to do away with huge chunks of text that don’t apply to their courses, while culling the Connexions database for pieces that apply to their specific areas of instructors. To make that task manageable, Connexions will offer a series of “lenses” that allow users to limit the pool from which they’re choosing. In other words, if Baraniuk wanted to limit his search to courses that the dean liked, he could do so. Or he might choose to view modules that other users had ranked as effective, modules that students liked, modules that resulted in better test scores, modules approved by professional societies, modules produced by certain universities, or even for-fee modules created by Prentice-Hall.
In the last three years, the Connexions team has faced — and cleared — a lot of hurdles. The last of these turned on a legal issue: specifically, the development of licenses that would both protect authors’ intellectual property rights and allow the sort of open usage and modification that Connexions facilitates. “We felt totally hamstrung by our own legal department,” says Baraniuk. “I mean, it’s hard to come into the administration and say, look at all this great stuff we want to give away — the source code, the ability to publish and modify this content, the content itself.”
The problems occurred when the legal team at Rice, accustomed to protecting the university’s intellectual property, suddenly found itself face to face with a bunch of technologists who wanted to take a page from the open-source movement and adhere to an ethic of maximum openness.
“When we started trying to work through the issues, it wasn’t about the attorneys helping us iron out a few legal details,” says Ross Reedstrom, a research scientist at Rice and a Connexions programmer. “I spent hours and hours trying to educate our legal team about the concept of openness.”
The problem was that, to the legal team, “free” and “open” meant “unprotected.” And unprotected was not something the Rice legal team was willing to countenance. The clash was perhaps, inevitable. “It’s interesting that education is the place where the problem of licensing open, free materials became an issue,” says Chris Kelty, an anthropologist who studies the open source movement and is on staff at Connexions. “Educators traditionally build on the shoulders of their peers. This project is all about trying to systematize, formalize and facilitate something that already happens.”
After weeks of barely productive meetings that left the entire Connexions staff frustrated with the Rice legal team, Chris suggested that Connexions meet with his colleague, James Boyle, a law professor at Duke and Creative Commons boardmember. The meeting of needs and minds was instantaneous. “Creative Commons came along at the exact right time. We had this huge problem, how to license content in a way that left it open and dynamic, but still offered protections,” says Baraniuk. Sitting down together, Boyle, Reedstrom, and the Rice legal team were quickly able to hash through most of the remaining licensing issues. Creative Commons will provide the licenses that protect Connexions authors and the Connexions repository.
The licensing issues have the response from the academic community has been positive. “It’s been very easy to get professors to agree to write course modules,” says Baraniuk. “People really understand that with these licenses they aren’t giving up credit, and they are opening their ideas up to what is potentially a huge audience.”
The next hurdle? Filling the Connexions repository with strong content. “The big question now is the take off. When does the project leave the ground?,” says Kelty. “If we only get a bunch of mediocre DSP [Digital Signal Processing] texts, well, it won’t be that useful.”
But signs are that momentum is growing. Professors at other universities are beginning to take notice, and Dean Burrus recently chaired a National Academy of Engineering workshop about how to build an online educational initiative that transcends ownership by any one university and becomes a truly global entity. Attendees included representatives from the Department of Education, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, Michigan State, Columbia, and Carnegie Mellon. Finally, the Hewlett Foundation recently awarded the project a $1,000,000 grant to establish a sustainable business model.
“I think we really have a great chance at getting where we want to go,” says Baraniuk. “What distinguishes us from other initiatives is simple: we have Rice’s buy-in to the idea that at some point, we may spin this off into a creative nonprofit. That’s huge. That means we really could be global.”
Ashley Craddock is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Wired, Mother Jones, Working Woman and Marie Claire, among other places.No Comments »