Sunday, October 12, 2008

EU Project Missing the Point on Open Access to Publications

The European Commission has a project looking at the use of public domain content. Those involved in higher education in the EU can take part in a Survey on the Use of public domain works in higher education (those outside the EU can still get a report on the survey results by entering their email address). However, a flaw in the design of the study by Rightscom may result in it harming open access projects in Europe. The problem seems to be that the EU project assumes that free material is mostly about dusty old books where the copyright has expired. There is a danger this will be a self fulfilling prophecy: the surveys will find little new material because the survey specifically exclude such material and the conclusion will be that open access material is of little value.

One problem I can see with the survey is the definition used: "By public domain we mean material that is not or is no longer protected by intellectual property rights and includes resources which can be freely accessed and used and re-used by all." (from the survey preface). This definition would exclude all creative commons materials and most other open source licences. It would exclude the GNU Free Documentation Licence, of the Wikipedia, and the Wikiversity. It would exclude the training materials I provide free online from my ANU courses, the materials provided now by MIT Open Courseware and Standford University. Also the new research papers from the Australian Computer Society Digital Library and the International Federation for Information Processing Digital Library. All of these provide some form of free use, but are still protected by intellectual property rights.

The Economic and Social Impact of the Public Domain Project Announcement mentions Creative Commons and the GNU Free Documentation Licence, but apparently as an afterthought. Those of a suspicious mind might think that the project has been deliberately designed this way so as to minimise the
size, value and usage of public domain content found in Europe, as a way to protect the financial interests of the commercial publishing industry. However, it seems more likely that the flawed methodology is due to a failure by those designing the project and the study to understand the nature of open access.

The designers of the project appear to see the main way people can gain free access to materials is where the copyright has expired. New open access materials where they are designed this way from the start appear to have been added as a minor consideration. Perhaps in some disciplines, such as history and literature, access to old materials could be of great value. However, being able to access the latest research and educational material through open access licences is likely to be of more value for most areas of research and education. The EU should revise the project definition to place the priority on new work and ask the researchers conducting the higher education study to revise their survey. If there is no change, then there is a danger the results, by excluding most new open access material, will falsely report there is little public domain material and it is of little value.

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