It depends – Contexts for copyright, patents and licensing #OER17

Patent Suction - Image taken from page 119 of 'Beeton's Christmas Annual, British Library
Patent Suction – Image taken from page 119 of ‘Beeton’s Christmas Annual, British Library

Reading posts on variations of Creative Commons licensing by Alan Levine, Doug Belshaw ,  and  Maha Bali really made me think about our practices of licensing, copyrighting and attributing creative works, particularly of what we share as ‘knowledge’. Alan describes the various CC licenses he has used for his photos on Flickr, and the trials and tribulations he encounters in trying to apply CC0 to all of his images on Flickr. I had to check what CC0 was:

Once the creator or a subsequent owner of a work applies CC0 to a work, the work is no longer his or hers in any meaningful sense under copyright law. Anyone can then use the work in any way and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, subject to other laws and the rights others may have in the work or how the work is used. Think of CC0 as the “no rights reserved” option.Creative Commons FAQ

Doug Belshaw explains why he has applied CC0 to all of his work (including his doctoral thesis) that is under his control. Maha Bali, whilst acknowledging that CC licenses can be ignored, reveals how her approach to licence choice is contextual.

Thinking about my own practice, I publish this blog as CC BY-NC  and try to publish my research writing in Open Access journals. Having said that, the last two articles I wrote with colleagues as I was retiring were published in closed journals, since those were the most beneficial for my co-authors still subject, unlike myself, to the Research Excellence Framework. So my approach to copyright and licensing is also contextual. If asked do you publish openly? my answer would have to be – Yes, but it depends.

I am always interested in looking at historical accounts to try to understand innovation. Bijker(1995) was one of my teaching resources, with the story of the emergence of the popular style of the bicycle being a good classroom story to explore. Audrey Watters has argued powerfully that 21st Century ‘innovators’ in Educational Technology ignore/distort history in an attempt to big up their products and services.

Then I remembered reading about 19th century industrial innovations that relied on sharing rather than protection and secrecy. In looking for this, I didn’t find my original reading but instead found a very interesting article about the Cornish Pumping Engine (Nuvolari 2004). Nuvolari contrasts the ‘heroic narrative’ where individuals are credited with inventions with ‘collective invention’, an incremental approach where the contributions of individuals can remain anonymous.  For example, we all ‘know’ that James Watt invented the ‘modern’ steam engine  that helped to bring about the Industrial Revolution. Nuvolari’s case study examines what happened in Cornwall, a remote area of England, in the 19th century mining industry which had memories of a bad experience in the last quarter of the 18th century with the more fuel-efficient patented Watt steam engines, needed to address flooding in their mines. The business model that Boulton & Watt established with Cornish mine adventurers was royalties based on hypothetical fuel efficencies of the Watt engine as compared with the earlier Newcomen engine. This model was unsatisfactory to the mine adventurers not only for business and economic reasons but also because Boulton and Watt’s refusal to license the design prevented Cornish engineers from improving the engines to suit local circumstances. Watt’s patent hampered engine innovation in Cornwall (and elsewhere) and the 19th century started with a dearth of progress.

This situation lasted until 1811, when a group of mine “captains” (mine managers) decided to begin the publication of a monthly journal reporting the salient technical characteristics, the operating procedures and the performance of each engine. The explicit intention was twofold. First the publication would permit the rapid individuation and diffusion of best-practice techniques.
Secondly, it would create a climate of competition among the engineers entrusted with the different pumping engines, with favourable effects on the rate of technical progress.

Lean’s Engine Reporter continued until 1904 and was accompanied by a steady improvement in the thermodynamic efficency of Cornish engines. Cornish adventurers were driven by pragmatism rather than an ideological attachment to open knowledge. I can recommend reading Nuvolari’s case study as it questions the standard historical account of the ‘golden boys’ role in the Industrial Revolution and the role of patents in stimulating innovation, and draws attention instead to innovation’s incremental, anonymous reality that occurred in a variety of social, geographical, legal and economic circumstances.

 Monument to Boulton, Watt and Murdoch Outside the Birmingham House of Sport (formerly the Register Office) on Broad Street stands the statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch, nicknamed 'The Golden Boys' or 'The Carpet Salesmen'. It is the work of William Bloye, formerly head of sculpture at Birmingham School of Art and was unveiled in 1956, although preliminary designs were drawn up in 1938. The three men pioneered the industrial revolution in late 18th century England. James Watt's improvements to the steam engine and William Murdoch's invention of gas lighting have made them famous throughout the world. Matthew Boulton, entrepreneur and industrialist, harnessed their talents in a company that made everything from tableware and copper coinage to steam engines.
Fathers of Technology – monument to Boulton, Watt and Murdoch by Francesco Falciani CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Nuvolari also hints at the central nature of patents with frequency increasing with proximity to the Patents Office.

So what have I learned?

I have already started to think about the personal is political in relation to Open Educational Practice, and have long observed (from my gendered lens) restricted narratives and dialogues even within open educational communities , see this post from 2011. Cornish mine adventurers had pragmatic reasons for challenging patents and promoting competition between engineers, and will no doubt have operated within class structures. If we want to promote Open Education that challenges structural inequalities of class, gender and race, we need to acknowledge these inequalities and be alert to where heroic narratives obscure structure inequalities in the cause of ‘innovation’ and profit.

References

Bijker, W. (1995) Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, Inside Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, MIT Press, [online] Available from: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/students/envs_5110/bijker.pdf.

Nuvolari, A. (2004) ‘Collective invention during the British Industrial Revolution: the case of the Cornish pumping engine’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 28(3), pp. 347–363, [online] Available from: http://cms.tm.tue.nl/Ecis/Files/papers/wp2004/eciswp103.pdf  .

Watters, A. (2015) ‘The Invented History of “The Factory Model of Education”’, EducationFuturism.com, [online] Available from: https://educationfuturism.com/the-invented-history-of-the-factory-model-of-education-a069ae3d1e99#.9jht3gp0c (Accessed 19 October 2016).