California’s Open Textbook Bill

Interesting legislation coming out of the California State Senate (PDFs, SB1052 and SB1053). President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has brought forward two bills to try to address students’ textbook woes. Here’s what they do:

The first step (cue Republicans warning of bureaucracy) is to create a commission of 9 faculty members, 3 each from University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges. This commission is tasked with creating a list of the 50 most widely taken lower-division courses (there will be some work here in trying to figure out whether overlapping courses are the same or different). Once this list is drawn up, in order for a bookstore to carry a book for one of these courses, the publisher must provide at least 3 copies for the library. OK, this part is a little underwhelming;  it’s always nice to have reserve copies, but that’s just a band-aid.

Flatworld knowledge, All Access Pass (PDF, epub etc.) for $34.95The more interesting part of the bill is the attempt to drive production of one open, Creative Commons-licensed textbook for each of these classes. The bill’s drafters clearly took some time to figure parts of this out. There would be an RFP and grant process administered by the commission—they don’t assume that these textbooks would come from nothing. Traditional publishers would be invited to submit bids along with everyone else. Digital would be free, print copies would need to be provided at low cost.

Textbooks would be licensed under Creative Commons, allowing derivative works, so you could remix/adapt content. There’s also a bit about the textbooks needing to be provided in XML or a similar format. This is smart; you don’t want publishers providing something free but then charging for every alternative format (Flatworld Knowledge does this, providing a Web-based version and then charging for PDF, ePub etc., though their prices are low). A companion bill provides for the establishment of a California Open Source Digital Library, where all this stuff would presumably be made easily accessible and preserved.

So, yes, interesting stuff. The risks are pretty clear:

  • You can’t always commission a good textbook. Publishers in the current system don’t win every time. Someone gets a book contract, writes a textbook, and nobody adopts it. When publishers get a hit, they milk it, with a new edition every couple years. So it could be that the RFP looks good, but nobody likes the textbook once it’s written.
  • Publishers could just start to milk the ancillary materials, and charge $150 for access to online problem sets, quizzes etc. They’ve already started this process, right? Many students can’t buy used textbooks for a lot of classes because they need a bundled code for the online portion. There’s nothing in the bill about the CC license being non-commercial, so students could continue getting reamed, just not by the textbook itself. Presumably this question would be dealt with by the commission in the RFP process.

We’ll see. The publishers don’t like it, but then they might end up competing to get the grants—that’s always motivational. The college bookstores won’t like it for sure, but there’s probably not a lot they can do. In any case, it’s great to see people looking for solutions here. Links to the bills are at the top of the page. I didn’t see anything in depth in the LA Times, Sac Bee or other papers, but UC Berkeley’s Daily Cal had a good piece back when the legislation was first introduced.

The bill is now out of the Senate, so it then needs to pass the Assembly. And there’s no funding in the bill itself—that would need to be part of California’s always smooth-sailing budget process.

Internet Archive stretches e-book lending

A few years back, Google decided our current understanding of copyright was outmoded, or at least inconvenient, and started scanning books en masse. They argued that their end product, a searchable index, was sufficiently transformative that the copying itself should be ok. Some major academic and public libraries cooperated, but publishers and authors’ organizations understandably saw things differently and sued, and now the conflict is being resolved in a settlement that, if approved, could provide some new revenue streams for Google, increased access to esoteric books for people outside elite academic libraries, and some compensation for publishers of out-of-print works for this increased use. All this with no change to the statute or case law.

So now, the Internet Archive (under its Open Library wing) is taking a similarly bold step, partnering with libraries to help provide users—any user, not just their own patrons, as I originally thought!—with electronic copies of out-of-print books. It’s clear that this is intended not to look threatening to publishers: the books are out of print, so they’re not depriving publishers of sales; they only lend one copy at a time, and the physical copy must remain idle while the e-version is lent; DRM (not something the Internet Archive is generally friendly toward) helps accomplish these limitations.

So, that all sounds great. But does the copyright law allow a library to make a copy of a book and lend that copy? Well, I don’t see where it does—Title 17 Section 108, the “library exception”, carves out some special rights for libraries but this would seem to go further. But doesn’t Google’s example suggest that just working with what copyright law clearly allows is a little dull? (I love the title of Open Library’s blog post here: "Small Moves: Open Library Integrates Digital Lending”. Small, indeed!)

It’s fascinating to compare this move to Google’s. According to the settlement, Google will become a kind of e-book vendor and is looking very comfortable in that role, imposing all sorts of features and opportunities, in other words, making sure that access entails all sorts of arbitrary limitations (the dedicated computer terminals with mandated printing charges surely being the most bizarre). The IA’s version—take a digital copy, use it for a prescribed period, pay nothing—is much more in the traditional library spirit. Will be interesting to see how this plays out!

And a scary thought: will the existence of the Google e-book collection (assuming that comes to fruition) endanger this sort of effort, since free electronic lending of these books would compete with Google’s product and therefore be seen as threatening to publishers who profit from the Google settlement?

Additional link: Resource Shelf post on the topic.

[EDIT] Oh, and here’s the best analysis I’ve seen so far, from the Go to Hellman blog: Internet Archive Sets Fair-Use Bait With Open Library Lending

What I learned from the Copyright Clearance Center

It seemed so notable at the time, but somehow I never got around to posting about it (or a handful of other things that went on last semester… oh well). As part of our professional development days held in the week preceding the beginning of the semester, way back in January, I attended a webinar given by the Copyright Clearance Center, the purpose of which was to shed some light on how copyright issues come up in the college setting. If you’ve ever read up on copyright, you know that this is not something that lends itself to a 60-minute session. And you can also imagine many of the things that are going to come up, including discussing what can and can’t be copyrighted, what the four factors are, and so on. No reason to rehash all that; instead I’ll just highlight a few interesting things I learned.

1. One of the factors that has led to rampant copyright violation in the digital age is the fact that "copyright-savvy librarians" no longer stand between people and information.

I thought that was an interesting phrase, copyright-savvy librarian, especially since knowledge (savvy) here is seen as the power to withhold access. It is true, I suppose; think of ILL, in which the loaning library keeps track of how many articles have been sent from each journal to each library, or something like that; or of those always-illuminating signs on photocopiers that alert patrons to the existence of copyright as they copy complete articles, chapters, or books. I was so impressed by the phrase that when I participated in the discussion later on, I introduced myself as a “copyright-savvy librarian.”

2. While it is sometimes ok to use small amounts of copyrighted material, if you are publishing something you always need to ask permission.

I asked then, naturally, if this kind of blanket statement was something that was actually in the law (since I’ve never seen it there), or maybe just the opinion of the CCC. The answer was that even academic publishers as a matter of course request permission for everything. Even if that were true, said I (is that really true? seek permission for everything?), true that risk-averse corporations seek to minimize their exposure to this sort of thing, that there’s all sorts of self-publishing occurring today, from blogs to books, and there is such a thing as fair use, for which we can find certain guidelines but the boundaries of which are always fluid… At that point they countered with Harper & Row vs. Nation Enterprises, at which point I kind of threw up my hands and figured it would be unsociable to point out how irrelevant that case is—unpublished material, commercial use etc. Not that I didn’t mutter under my breath.

3. We shouldn't take the line in section 107 of the Copyright Act about "multiple copies for classroom use" being a kind of fair use seriously.

This came up when the presenters listed a number of examples of fair use, and I noted during discussion that it was odd they had excluded that particular one, since after all their audience was largely made up of instructors and that was one way that the question of copyright would likely come up, and after all it is one of the few uses explicitly mentioned in the statute. The presenter explained that it’s really not a good idea to mention that line, because if you do, then people think they can make as many copies as they want and just basically go hog-wild. Those weren’t the exact words she used, but I can’t find my notes so they’ll have to do.

4. It is important to always err on the side of the copyright-holder when using copyrighted works, because if you don't you can get in a heap of trouble.

This was a point that came across again and again. Go to the CCC or, better yet, get a site-license for your institution and have a big content party, just like you would with a Rhapsody or Napster subscription. My question here was whether state institutions such as ours actually have been getting in heaps of trouble—what with the problems involved in suing states under federal law etc. The answer was that, just because you can get away with something doesn’t mean you should do it. For instance—and this I’m not making up, this was the example she gave—she used to speed on the freeway, and then she got a ticket, and now she no longer speeds.

Leaving aside what that analogy implies about the relative unimportance of copyright in the scheme of things—casual, flow-of-traffic speeding being something that most people would not find ethically problematic—I thought it totally inept simply because speeding is plainly illegal, whereas the use of copyrighted works may or may not be illegal, depending on a whole slew of variables. The point of assessing your risk is not to be do things you know are illegal, but to not sacrifice educational goals unnecessarily. Or, not to modify solid pedagogical techniques simply to avoid some consequence that is unlikely to occur. The CCC argument ran as follows: “You don’t want to get sued, so assume that fair use barely exists.” But if the risk of getting sued is low or nil, then you can draw the line where you think it actually is, rather than where it might be seen by some.

I may have learned a few other things in the webinar, but I have forgotten them, as I have so many things I’ve learned over the years. I was reminded of this event recently while listening to an episode of the Adventures in Library Instruction podcast in which the group discussed a site called campusdownloading.com (now defunct, but you can see it on the Wayback Machine). Of course just as the RIAA has their take on downloading music, the CCC will have its take on using copyrighted content on the classroom. Good to learn.

So much for those SFPL E-cards

sfpl-boo.png Curious to know what the whole story was. Surely they thought their licensing terms allowed them to offer e-cards? Sacramento Public Library also offers e-cards, but they expire after two weeks (not sure if they’re renewable). Unfortunately SPL does not have the database selection SFPL does, though they have a few useful things that we don’t, e.g. Gale OneFile & Literature Resource Center (and better access to the Sacramento Bee via NewsBank than we have via Ebsco or LexisNexis).

Change.gov and copyright

The incoming Obama administration has launched a new website, Change.gov, which, while not identical, is largely consistent in design with the striking BarackObama.com site. It’s a really interesting manifestation of the transition of power on the Web, as the campaign takes on the legitimacy of the .gov domain. But one thing that struck me as oddly disturbing was the copyright statement at the bottom of the home page. When I first saw it, a few days ago, it listed a 501(c)(?—I don’t recall the number) organization whose name I don’t remember. This has been changed, and today it simply reads “Content Copyright © [why is this redundancy so widespread?] 2008. All Rights Reserved.” Now it’s great design, and I can understand its owners wanting to hold onto it; but doesn’t the transition to the federal government generally entail an entry into the public domain where copyright is concerned? It will be interesting to watch how this sort of thing plays out after the inauguration.

Update 12/18/08: A while back this changed, and now the site no copyright notice on the home page. Instead it has a separate page explaining that the content is covered by a Creative Commons 2.0 license (“except where otherwise noted”). This is interesting for a couple reasons. First, Creative Commons is now officially mainstream. But second, it states quite clearly that the material is not public domain. The claim is that this material, a product of the U.S. federal government, is protected by copyright, and has been licensed for certain uses. An ambiguous move!

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