Coda on The Content Paradox (or Why We Should Celebrate Open Access to Art)

Coda on The Content Paradox (or Why We Should Celebrate Open Access to Art)

Never again shall a single story be told as if it were the only one.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)

The end of my #opened15 presentation used an example about OER from the perspective of art museums to solidify my thesis.  For centuries a fear of losing the control of the image crippled the manner in which museums operated:  forgery, photography, transmissions, mechanical reproduction, telecommunications (for more on the history, I encourage you to watch Orson Welles’ excellent pseudo-documentary F is for Fake).  It took an incredible effort to shift the cultural memory of museums away from image protection to celebration of abundance and ubiquity, thanks in large part to some incredible writing and production from people such as Walter Benjamin and John Berger.  I challenged the audience to recognize the history of the groups we sometimes chastise as guilty of openwashing, to consider their histories and spaces, to approach advocacy by encouraging these groups to further stretch their definitions of open rather than demanding they adhere to ours.  That’s a hands-on approach rather than a scaled, global initiative — which was also a criticism of mine regarding open (i.e., moving away from local to global structure does not mean abandoning the local narratives that catalyzed Open).

My presentation, entitled The Sale of Open Content, was a critical look at the OER subculture and its attitudes toward other subcultures as well as mainstream cultures.  I argued that our focus on copyright had led us to be so caught up in licenses that we had failed to meet people where they were, our pragmatism toward our work coming off as zealotry toward the specific ways in which we use specific licenses.  I had the fortune of a prescient topic in this telling, as the Open Education 2015 conversation was happening largely around the benefit of open textbooks as free or low-cost alternatives and whether or not the pinpointed focus had obscured or forgotten the Open ethos.

That is a roundabout way of saying Open is too focused on licenses.  Sharing what was once locked away, even if the sharing happens on the terms of the proprietor, is a win for Open.  In the ideal world of Open Education, materials would fall under the Five R’s.  But in the world of the Smithsonian or the Museum of Modern Art or the Getty or the Tate, 10 years ago materials fell behind brick walls and paywalls.  That the Getty has now put all of the items they are responsible for out in the open, and that the Smithsonian has done the same while at least providing access to the copyrighted items they display, is incredible considering the history of museums and galleries in the world.

Last week, Navigation North Learning, a design outfit partnering with the Smithsonian Center for Learning & Digital Access, announced the launch of the Smithsonian Learning Lab, a web-based platform providing access to over 1.3 million of the Smithsonian’s artifacts. The press release went a bit off the rails in its claims about the lab’s purpose and history:

You might not have felt it, but the Smithsonian quietly released the single largest worldwide collection of OER by any one agency in the history of digital resource publishing.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.

The press release goes on to note that the *official* launch by the Smithsonian is months away, which gives the Smithsonian ample time to correct the false claims and careless language here.  Because the problem is simple — the Smithsonian does not have the right to provide these 1.3 million resources as OER for use and repurpose.  The Smithsonian owns or holds copyright on many of their artifacts, and these are available as OER.  Artifacts loaned to the Smithsonian for which they do not hold copyright may be included in the 1.3 million available artifacts, but they do not have the same affordances as the previously mentioned OER:

…the Smithsonian does not necessarily own each component of the compilation. The Content that the Smithsonian makes available on the SI Websites may be owned by the Smithsonian, owned by others and used with their permission (such as user-generated content), or used in accordance with applicable law. Some Content is in the public domain and some Content is protected by third party rights, such as copyright, trademark, rights of publicity, privacy, and contractual restrictions.

…and this leads to discussion of fair use, the great punt or abdication of license responsibility.

Having explored the platform, there are a number of ways I can interpret its use, and closer to its official roll-out it probably deserves a much more focused critique.  In short, though, there is ample room to criticize the scope of the platform in terms of OER as well as to celebrate the steps the Smithsonian has taken towards OER.

Criticism – the platform promotes “Discover, Create, Share” as the foundation of the Smithsonian Learning Lab, but in reality this is a very narrow look at Create and Share.  The platform requires a log-in to use beyond search capacity, creation is only the curation of an exhibit within their platform, and share only happens on this platform.  Moreover, there is not an easy way to download those artifacts which are in the public domain versus those which are restricted (or in some cases, such as an ink sketch drawing of Richard Nixon I found by chance, forbidden without express written consent of the Smithsonian).  I have to get outside of the platform and to the source pages of the Smithosonian gallery to be able to download anything.  This makes the ‘single largest worldwide collection of OER’ quite a misnomer — this all existed before, it is just now available to be juxtaposed with other images on the Smithsonian website.  This is more likely the single largest worldwide collection of materials that can be easily curated through a web browser tool.

Praise – It is beyond awesome that the Smithsonian is making efforts to provide access to their images.  Yes, in many cases these images have been digitized and available on the Smithsonian website, but the search capabilities were limited and there was no mechanism for a user to do anything from within the browser.  Promotion is access.  Considering this kind of necessity is access.

At first glance, this looks to me like a well-meaning initiative by the Smithsonian that is hamstrung by a locked-down web-based platform. And in the effort of celebrating their relationship with the Smithsonian (understandable),the developers engineered a word soup press release.  For that I am not willing to blame the Smithsonian.  Rather, I want to meet the Smithsonian where they are — at a place of excitement and wonder about the potential of web-based communications for their mission in the diffusion of knowledge (for those of you unfamiliar with the work of the Smithsonian’s own Michael Peter Edson, check out his theories on the Internet and Dark Matter), while understanding the historical and cultural memory of what it is to be an institution expected to both assess and protect.

The Smithsonian spent their money on a product that maybe is not as Open as we in the world of OER advocacy would like it to be, but it is clear there is an energy to move in an Open direction.  Rather than judge them poorly for potential foibles, isn’t the better option to celebrate their work on providing more access to their artifacts?  Yes, the largest museums have partnered with technology organizations who do not adhere to the Five R’s (the Getty works with Khan Academy, MoMA with Coursera), but rather than pushing adherence to our definition of Open, why not celebrate their movement towards open and encourage them or the thousands of other museums out there to go one step further in their understanding, to throw the doors open and experiment with unlocking the entire artifact.  Let’s engage the conversation we would have been unable to have 10 years ago, and let the licensing emerge instead of dictating it from the get-go.

Image:  National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; donated to the people of the United States of America by the Richard Nixon Foundation.  © The Norman Rockwell Estate Licensing Co.

Posted on: December 3, 2015admin

One thought on “Coda on The Content Paradox (or Why We Should Celebrate Open Access to Art)

  1. Thanks for summarizing your argument from the Open Ed conference. Even though I was there, I must admit my memory is better served from your succinct blog post about the topic. This is clearly a win for open education, even though it’s important to point out the restrictions and closed systems that some organizations operate under by equating open with free.

    Reuse and redistribution are underappreciated aspects of the movement towards openly licensed content. Some disciplines are indeed better served when certain content can be openly shared but not necessarily modified. One important part of teaching literature, for example, is the importance of precise, careful, considerate readings of texts, and noting that selective and dishonest readings arise from texts that have been appropriated from their original contexts. I worry that some texts may be poorly used in a culture of rampant modification. Of course, the irony is that, in my view, only education can solve the literacy problems that plague our current world. But there’s more than one way to get there, and it is a disservice to educators to malign “outdated pedagogy” that “just doesn’t work.” It’s far, far more complex than that.

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