Open Access and Closed Minds

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Balancing Intellectual Property and Public Interest in the Digital Age
By Nalaka Gunawardene
 UN Chronicle


Children watching an open air film screening in Siem Reap, Cambodia. © TVE Asia Pacific

Nearly a decade ago, South Africa based British documentary producer Neil Curry made an extraordinary film, The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree about the complex ecosystem around Africa’s mopane woodland. This engaging tale won many awards in leading environmental and natural history film festivals.

Having spent several months in Botswana researching and filming the story, Neil wanted to take the film back to where it was shot. He knew that the wildlife parks and schools in the area could use the film to educate the local people and visitors. However, there was one problem: the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Natural History Unit, which had funded the film and thus owned the copyright, would not share it. For two years, Neil’s request for a single DVD copy for use in Botswana was passed around within its bureaucracy until he gave up. This is not an isolated incident, and the BBC is not the only culprit. Every year, vast amounts of public or philanthropic funds are spent on making hundreds of documentaries and TV programmes on various environmental, development and social issues. These are typically aired a few times; some are also screened at film festivals or released on DVD. Most are locked up in broadcast archives and never seen again.

That is such a missed opportunity. Many factual films have a long shelf life and can be very useful in education, advocacy and training, especially in the developing world where such resources are scarce. But the broadcast industry—in both the global North and South—has no culture of sharing. Even when individuals are eager to let their creations be used widely, institutional policies often stand in the way.

Communicating for social change is an incremental process. Despite television being the world’s most pervasive medium, broadcasts alone cannot accomplish this. Our experience in developing Asia shows that narrowcast outreach in classrooms and other small groups is often more effective. However, clearing non-broadcast rights is a major struggle.

COPYRIGHTS FREE ZONE?

In September 2006, at the United Nations Fifty-ninth Annual DPI/NGO Conference in New York, I urged all broadcasters—public and commercial—to let go of their development related television content after initial airing, and to allow educational and civil society groups access to their archives. I proposed that broadcasters treat poverty and development as a ‘copyrights free zone’.

I have since repeated this call in various op-eds and conference speeches across Asia. While many media managers privately agree with me, their institutions and industry continue with business as usual.

There are, encouragingly, a few notable exceptions: in 2009, the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera became the first global broadcaster to give away selected news and current affairs footage gathered by its reporters and crews. It allows anyone to download, share, remix, subtitle and rebroadcast (or webcast) such material.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has also started releasing some audio and video archival materials through a collaborative media platform called ABC Pool.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the acclaimed French photographer, journalist and environmentalist, released a major new documentary, Home, on World Environment Day 2009 without any copyright restrictions. The entire 120 minute film is available for free download from the videosharing site, YouTube.com.

To venture off the beaten path, both Al Jazeera and ABC used the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution License. Creative Commons is an international non-profit organization that provides free licenses and tools for copyright owners to let others reuse and remix their material. Since 2001, it has provided a legal framework for thousands of progressive individuals and institutions to share their work. Creators still retain some rights—they can choose which uses are allowed to whom.

HISTORICAL TENSIONS

Notwithstanding such initiatives, the debate between restricting and sharing is contentious. These tensions are rooted in history.

Modern copyright laws originated in Western society in the eighteenth century. While communications technologies and economies have evolved a great deal since, many copyright laws are anchored in ideas dating before the discovery of electricity.

Indian Chinese legal researcher Lawrence Liang points out how, even as the internet and digital media rendered distinctions between originals and copies largely obsolete, changes in copyright laws have tried to artificially maintain them. Challengers to the status quo face an uphill struggle. He says: “The existence of alternatives to copyright—such as copyleft, the open source movement, the Fairshare and Street Performer protocols—belie the reality of copyright. Conceptually, these alternatives challenge the fundamentals upon which copyright rests. The emphasis is on the ability of users to modify and distribute works—yet there is still ‘incentive’ to create….”

Liang sees the free and open source software (FOSS) movement as a “strong counter imagination to the dominant discourse on copyright, one that opens up alternative modes through which we can think of the question of knowledge production and distribution”.

FOSS advocates have proved that collaborative software development can coexist with proprietary systems. FOSS has increased choices for users while enhancing computer literacy and access to knowledge in many emerging economies.

OPEN ACCESS IN SCIENCE

Meanwhile, scientific publishing has its own Open Access (OA) debates. At its heart is the question: should researchers in low income countries have free access to the latest research findings?

Scientific journal publishing is a lucrative business. Publishers are not keen to change their subscription-based models “although technologies are in place to carry on with cheaper and faster knowledge dissemination,” says Indian information scientist Subbiah Arunachalam, an ardent advocate for OA.

During the past decade, several OA initiatives have tried to lower access barriers. Among them are: HINARI (www.who. int/hinari/en) on health and biomedical research set up by the World Health Organization which now covers over 8,500 journals and 7,000 e-books in 30 languages; and AGORA (www.aginternetwork.org/en) on agricultural research operated by the Food and Agriculture Organization, which involves over 1,900 journals.

Both programmes rely on partnerships with major scientific publishers, and allow free or subsidized journal access online to eligible institutions in the South. The non-profit publisher Public Library of Science goes further by making its papers freely available to everyone online.

The Government of the United Kingdom is currently debating a proposal to pay publishers a fee each time a scientific paper is published with free access; the money would come from research support funds. The heated debate surrounding this highlights the various interests that need to be balanced.

Long-time advocates like Arunachalam know that the odds are not yet in their favour. “Institutions like Association of Research Libraries, Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, and Public Library of Science will find, at least for some time, the battle with the large publishing firms an unequal one,” he wrote in 2009. “Unfortunately, public support for initiatives that will lead to greater democratization is rather slow.”

Arunachalam feels that movements like Access to Knowledge (A2K) of the Yale Law School and the Internet Archive started by the internet entrepreneur Brewster Kahle need greater momentum for the “democratization aspect of technology to offset the privatization efforts”.

WHO PAYS?

Open content and open archives are, no doubt, enchanting ideals. However, there are real costs to be covered, even when we are moving electrons instead of atoms. How can content creators and distributors sustain themselves? There is no simple answer—one size does not fit all. We must find business models and technology platforms that leverage the best of both worlds: utopian idealism and nuts-and-bolts pragmatism.

Two international initiatives that I know of provide some useful insights: the first one, the Science and Development Network, or SciDev.Net (www.scidev.net), is an entirely web-based journalistic service dedicated to providing authoritative information and analysis about science and technology for the developing world. “One of the founding principles of SciDev.Net was that all material on the website should be accessible at no charge, on the basis that those to whom the material was being aimed would often not be in a position to pay for it,” says David Dickson, its founder, director and editor. “To that extent, we have always operated on an open content basis, and we are very grateful to the aid agencies which have backed our activities.”

Crucial for this operation has been unrestricted (core) funding support from bilateral aid agencies. Much of this UK registered non-profit organization’s annual budget (US$ 1.85 million in 2011) came from the Governments of Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom. (Disclosure: I am a trustee.)

SciDev.Net has also negotiated with the journals Science and Nature—both of which require paid subscriptions—to allow free online access to their papers directly relevant to the developing world. “This is not technically open content; but it is in the same spirit,” says Dickson.

Majority World (www.majorityworld.com), the second international initiative, is a social enterprise that works with talented photographers in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, marketing their work and services to international clients. It is an initiative of the Drik Picture Library of Bangladesh, a pioneer in developing multimedia and journalistic skills in the region “to create equality of opportunity” for photographers from the global South.

Majority World Chairman Shahidul Alam, a renowned photographer and photojournalist, seeks to balance enterprise with advocacy, which is not an easy or common mix. He sees Majority World as opening doors to local photographers and also opening the minds of audiences by offering them unique insights into local cultures, development issues, environments and contemporary lifestyles.

Can high quality images still command a market when the web is full of free images? Alam acknowledges the need to define niches and test new business models. He also believes that a cultural shift is needed, where content producers and users discern between different types of use. Those with a clear profit motive should pay significantly more than for public interest and educational applications.

The proliferation of new information and communications technologies and digital media have added new layers of complexity, but they also hold new potential. Alam stresses the need for ‘frictionless transaction systems’ that bypass traditional intermediaries like banks. For now, high bank charges make micro-payments meaningless. Some social media platforms, like Twitter, are already experimenting with systems that can enable content producers to strike a better balance between fair returns to themselves and the public good.

OLYMPIC LESSONS

Finally, we can draw some lessons from the global Olympic movement that has successfully balanced revenue and public engagement for a century.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) owns worldwide broadcast rights for all Olympic Games and allocates them to media companies for dissemination via TV, radio, mobile and internet platforms. The rights are the principal driver of sponsors and funding; broadcasts also sustain popularity and promote Olympic values.

The IOC favours free-to-air broadcasters despite higher revenue potential from the subscription-based ones. Its guiding principle is drawn from the Olympic Charter: “The IOC takes all necessary steps…to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world….”

Over the years, the modern Olympics have moved away from pure amateurism which was envisioned by its founders. Purists decry this, but it is such guarded pragmatism that sustains one of the greatest cultural endeavours of our times.

All-or-nothing kind of stark choices are never healthy. Instead, let us look for the middle ground where commerce meets the commons, serving individual and public interests in our material world and networked society.

 

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