OER use by commercial publishers

I just read a very interesting article from “Inside Higher Ed” on the recent upsurge in use of OER by commercial publishers. It’s also the topic of a new guide by longtime OER advocates ISKME, titled “Toward a Sustainable OER Ecosystem: The Case for OER Stewardship“.
By open licensing their creations, OER authors (mostly — see this discussion of the “Noncommercial” Creative Commons feature) leave the door open to commercial use of that resource that the authors clearly intended to be used for free by faculty and students. Commercial use would seem to contradict that intention. The authors of the new ISKME guide began the work of clarifying when commercial use would seem to be in accord with the author’s intentions (such as creation of an online homework system based on and in support of the open licensed content), and when that use would tend to be in bad faith. Take a look at the guide and please comment your thoughts on this important issue.

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2 thoughts on “OER use by commercial publishers

  1. Several years ago, there was a book by Chris Anderson about the concept of free as a pricing strategy, for freeware software for example. (The audiobook is still available, free, as I write this at https://www.wired.com/2009/06/mf-freer/ .) I read this book about the time I started exploring OER, so I have always accepted that there would be some ambiguity about how free educational materials would work. I think it is normal for some companies to use free materials combined with some value-added changes, such as on-line supplements, to create commercial products. This was the original model of FlatWorld publishing when David Wiley founded it. It let users read textbooks on-line for free and hoped to make money for printed copies and supplements. Many OER textbooks were created through this company, though they have changed their business model in the last few years.

    It was interesting to read some commentors on a couple of articles you cite, recommending the use of GNU Copyleft licensing, which is more absolute — free is free, never for profit. I think the Copyleft approach works for software when lots of programmers pitch in to create and support software, but educational material needs more help to be sustainable. I am very concerned about the future of the textbook I am using, for example. Unless it gets significant revisions, it will probably only be useful for a couple more years. The communication discipline is dynamic field, so the content will need updating. Also, many examples in the book based on current events are aging quickly.

    The CARE guidelines look like a good attempt to determine when it is acceptable for companies to produce for-profit materials based on open materials. The really important part the CARE model to me is the “R” (release). For OER to be sustainable profit-making companies need to give back, through releasing additional OER or revisions that help extend the usable life of existing works. I think commercial textbook companies who use existing OER without giving back constitutes a parasitic relationship, and that would be dangerous to the already uncertain future of many OER textbooks.

    • Yes, I think it’s just too easy to state that cost is bad and free is good. It’s interesting to see how the idea of “free” means different things in different contexts too.

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