Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


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.


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:

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:  .

Watters, A. (2015) ‘The Invented History of “The Factory Model of Education”’,, [online] Available from: (Accessed 19 October 2016).

#OER17Boultoncontextcreative commons licensesgenderOERopenopen educationopen education practicepatentssteam engineWatt

francesbell • October 19, 2016

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  1. Alan Levine October 19, 2016 - 3:30 pm Reply

    Amazing post, Frances, thanks for this deep dive into steam engine history and development. It makes me wonder some about the value of this kind of sharing at a hyperlocal level, rather than universally– as you said, the sharing was driven by a pragmatic need. Is the “loss” to Watt different if a few people are twiddling his idea versus the entire world? The more limited ability for ideas to spread in that era, because of the channels of communication available, is almost hard to imagine now. And without what the Cornish engineers, the further innovation may not have happened, or maybe just not the same.

    I’m almost more curious about how the idea for publishing their ideas came to happen; that would have been a brilliant conversation to be part of, even if was in Facebook 😉

    You had me thinking about my own sharing situation with the quote of the license “Once the creator or a subsequent owner of a work applies CC0 to a work, the work is no longer his or hers” and that was a bit of a chill. No longer mine? But it’s not denying me ownership or originality, it is in relevance to law– “the work is no longer his or hers in any meaningful sense under copyright law.”

    Public domain makes a lot of sense for organizations and government bodies, where the creation is by multiple people, and often funded by public funding. It bears different consideration for the individual, to relinquish claims of “ownership under copyright law”. But the more I even read those words, it does not say I am relinquishing ownership of creativity (e.g. ownership not in the physical property sense but more in the owning credit for the making).

    I tried to make a point in a comment on Maha’s post, that photography, to me, is a somewhat different consideration than a larger body of work like a paper, a book.

    When I “make” a photograph, to be overly simplistic, I am merely cropping out the rest of the world, and anyone can do the same by standing in the same spot and the same time. But, as photographers know, it’s never exactly the same- the wind blows a branch, the light changes subtly or dramatically.

    We see this at scenic locations like the Grand Canyon (very close to where I live) or the Taj Mahal (still on my bucket list) where thousands of people stand on the same spot and take the same photograph. But to them, it’s not the same as anyone else’s- it is their experience and their moment, so there is a personal attachment to what the photograph represents for them, not the photo itself.

    So in sharing photographs, I still have my emotional ownership of that experience, the moment, that is not part of what I am “giving up” in CC0.

    My post on doing this was in no means a “CC0” is better, it was almost just an experiment in “what if”. For me, in most cases, a CC-BY is the optimum way to share, to give open, unrestricted usage for what I create (or crop out of the world) with just the ask of a small amount of credit / attribution. I like that because it creates a small thread of connection between two people. Yet, why should that connection only happen because of a license?

    And I doubt Watt would have been happy with just attribution 😉 But do we really know?

    Thanks for making by brain click into gear even before it got coffee!

    • francesbell October 19, 2016 - 10:06 pm Reply

      Thanks Alan – good to read your ideas. I only gave a potted history of the case, and you might find it interesting to read the original. I think Nuvolari was saying that in this case the patent inhibited innovation whereas in other cases it may have supported or even promoted it. What the Cornish case was is that the adventurers were willing to experiment (as you did with CC0). Their sharing seemed collaborative at a local level and against the constraints of the patent and charging arrangements.

    • francesbell October 20, 2016 - 8:55 am Reply

      P.S. to my reply to you Alan. I have been thinking some more about your comment on hyperlocal sharing. I think that Watt would be very aware of what was happening in Cornwall. He had quite a few years of making money out of Cornish mining engines and knew when to cut his losses I think. In my mind (and it’s all a bit vague just now), I am thinking about a contrast between a centralised repository eg of OERs or even patents, and the practices described by Wenger and others of sharing within communities of ideas that can then be propagated to other communities/contexts by becoming boundary objects and/or being shared by ‘edge’ members who have multiple membership.

  2. Dr Christopher Paul Jobling October 19, 2016 - 4:47 pm Reply

    Frances, great post.

    You may be aware that the next REF will be requiring that the publications that are submitted for assessment be available open access.

    The main result if this as far as I can tell is that publishers have started shifting the costs from readers (or at least libraries) to the authors.

    I guess it’s the institutions which pay the researchers who get to pay the publishers either way.

    • francesbell October 19, 2016 - 9:47 pm Reply

      Thanks Chris. I did know that REF requires OA but if you watch the short video it suggests a scenario where this payment could become subject to power relations. Regarding the costs charged by publishers, I don’t feel particularly hopeful as digital libraries seemed to result in increased revenue rather than generating savings. Here’s the view from 4 years ago.

  3. caroline Kuhn October 19, 2016 - 11:36 pm Reply

    Hey!!! This is such a good post Frances. As I before I am findibg my way into the political of techologies. I’ve found out in my study that there is soo much inequality with digital literacies and we ought to find ways to bridge that gulf because the inequality that it generates in many aspects of their lives is inceedible. Thanks for sharing such a refind thought process and the relevant references, I imagine including them in the list. I will read some of those soon 🙂

    • francesbell October 20, 2016 - 8:43 am Reply

      Thanks Caroline. Digital literacies (though I am not quite sure that’s the best name for the concept as it’s more than digital) is where I think I’m heading for my OER17 submission and ‘personal is political’ and questioning assumptions are useful way points for me. One of the things that has fascinated me is that most of the people in the OER movement (as far as I can see) are genuinely motivated to make things better but that zeal can blind us if we aren’t careful. I have learned this myself from reflecting on when I have taken a course of action without being aware (until later) of the consequences. For example, I used to fly under the radar, using some Web 2.0 apps in teaching without thinking about what they might become.

  4. Read Write Respond #010 – Read Write Collect

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