A case for public domain educational material

I recently spent a weekend in Ottawa, which involved a 6-hour bus ride each way. Naturally I took along my laptop and several textbooks to study from during the bus ride. While lugging the 20-30 pounds of textbooks and electronics from the bus stop to where I was staying, it occurred to me that it makes no sense for me to carry around textbooks and a laptop when the textbooks could be electronically stored on my laptop with no additional weight cost aside from the initial weight cost of my laptop. Why can’t I do this? It’s simple: most textbook publishers do not provide electronic versions of the textbooks they publish because doing so would make it too easy to illegitimately copy a textbook, which means the author would not benefit monetarily from that copy.

Some would argue that this problem can be solved by implementing digital rights management (DRM) on textbooks released in electronic form, which basically makes it hard to copy the text. This does not solve my problem very well because it usually limits the ways I can use the purchased electronic work so I could not, for example, copy it onto another device that I own. I suspect that this issue is a major reason why electronic works with DRM have not been very successful.

Also, publishing an electronic work using DRM still requires that anyone who wishes to read the educational material must purchase it from the publisher whether they have the financial means to do so or not. It is true that many published works can be accessed for free at a library, but libraries contain a very small subset of all the educational material that exists.

Whenever an educational work is copyrighted in such a way that a person must pay to access the work regardless of the format they choose (electronic, printed, audio, etc.), the number of people that benefit from the work is reduced to the number of people that have the money to buy it. This puts the people without the financial means to purchase educational works at a significant disadvantage because they cannot obtain the materials necessary to improve their knowledge. Because copyright restrictions are enforced by law, this model essentially says that only people with the financial means to purchase educational works are legally permitted to benefit from them. It is my belief that everyone should have equal access to educational material, especially now that it is so easy to distribute with the advent of the Internet.

Having copyright restrictions on educational works also makes it difficult for people to share information. For example, I often read useful things contained in copyrighted works that I wish to share with others on my blog, but it can be difficult to find these copyrighted works in electronic form and even if I can find them, it is unclear whether the electronic version I link to is entirely legitimate.

One solution to all these problems is for authors of educational works to release their works into the public domain. Doing so allows anyone to access the work for free (at least where the distribution method is free, as it often is with an electronic version submitted over the Internet). This means I can link to such a work on my blog or even copy parts or all of the work onto my blog. It means anyone with an Internet connection can access the work (assuming someone has made an electronic version, which is usually done with public domain works). It also means that I can distribute the work to people without an Internet connection for no more than the cost of the media (ie. paper or CDs) I use to distribute it. Additionally, I can copy the work onto my computer to view it while away from an Internet connection.

It is true that releasing educational works into the public domain does not solve the problem of how the authors get paid. I would argue that because releasing educational works into the public domain is the right thing to do (in my opinion), it does not matter how the authors get paid; we should do it regardless. However, for many people that argument provides insufficient reason to change the way things are done, which is why I will post another article shortly, which will outline practical ways to provide authors with money for their works while releasing their works into the public domain.

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