Twofish's Blog

June 15, 2006

Continuing the conversation on OCW

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 4:17 pm

Thanks Stephen for pointing out the irony of advocating liberal copyright on a page with a restrictive copyright. The copyright got changed when I upgraded the software and I didn't notice. This illustrates the usefulness of having massive collaboration, and the importance of "default" configurations. I would have never noticed the problem myself, and the fact that something was the default made it important here.

In discussing education reform issues, my experience has been that it is a mistake to stay in the abstract and not focus on the concrete. The answer to the question "is the NC tag a good thing" is like most education questions is "it depends." And in staying in the abstract, one risks answering an irrelevant question. Suppose we were to come to a consensus that the "NC tag is a good or bad thing" this doesn't matter if we can't cause some action to take place. I'm interested in focusing on MIT specifically because I am interested in the practical logistical and political problems that keep me from doing what I would like to do (i.e. take OCW text on quantitative finance, transistor theory, or quantum field theory, put them on wikitext, and then improve them).

I also have a strong emotion attachment to MIT, and my socio-cultural sense suggests that given MIT's openness, what I'd like to do is "merely difficult" rather than "totally impossible." It is really painful and stressful to change an organization that doesn't want to be changed, and changing someone or something that doesn't want to be changed usually is not the most efficient way of getting something done.

Let me give you an example of what I specifically want to do. If it's possible within the context of the NC license, then my argument is moot. Right now, my research involves modelling stock warrants in Shanghai using Levy processes. Since I don't understand Levy processes, I want to write a textbook on it. What I'd like to do is to go through OCW, find bits and pieces of things that involve Levy processes, cut and paste them onto Wikitext, add some annotations and observations, and create a rough draft of a personal textbook. Now, since there are other people interested in Levy processes, they would no doubt be interested in contributing, and I'm sure that there will be discussions in which someone doesn't like the way that I explain something, or that the explanation I give is just wrong.

I can do the same thing for something else that I don't understand. Quantum field theory. I also want to understand transistors, a course that I could have taken, but didn't my last semester senior year.

As things stand, I can't do this. There is the basic logistic problem, that I'll probably be cutting and pasting from dozens, if not hundreds of OCW texts, and just writing e-mail to the authors makes this impossible. There is also the problem of ownership of the final product. As it is, the non-commercial clause "taints" the product. If any one of the people I contact don't give me unrestricted permission to use their work, then the entire text has that restriction. I copy one single paragraph with a NC clause and they whole work becomes NC. This is a really, really big problem because the text I end up with might be 50% or 80% my work with hundreds of hours of my invested time, but with the NC clause, I can't commercialize it if I want to. I don't think that this is fair. It certainly wouldn't be fair for me to have *exclusive* commercial rights, but it also wouldn't be fair for me to have *no* commercial rights, which is what happens if I include the slightest bit of OCW work.

It gets worse. My day job is in commercial software development, and one thing that has been drummed into me is *NEVER READ SOURCE CODE FOR A PROGRAM SIMILIAR TO ONE THAT YOU MIGHT WRITE IN THE FUTURE*. This is serious stuff. Suppose I even *look at* source code for a spreadsheet program for a competing company. Next year, our company wants to write a spreadsheet program. If there is the slightest bit of unintentional copying then we are doomed. Even the fact that I've looked at competing spreadsheet code means that in case of an infringement lawsuit, we have some serious problems, and the general rule is that if you've worked on project A at a competing company, the lawyers look you over very closely before you are allowed to work on a similar project. This isn't abstract hypothetical stuff. It really happened. It's also why screenwriters will not look at unsolicited scripts, and why hardware designers have clean rooms.

When I have gone through OCW text for things that I don't have any intention of authoring texts on, it's also frustrating. I see a sentence that could be improved, or an explanation that could be tweaked. It's usually a small thing, and the overhead of contacting the faculty member to get a sentence changed or a subscript added, is too much trouble. (This is particularly crucial in math and physics. A single missing subscript or symbol can cause students hours of grief. A single line in a proof can be the difference between something that is bleeding obvious or totally abstuse.) But it creates this uncomfortable itchy feelining. Look and don't touch. What I'd like to do is to cut and paste the text into wikitext. Make some tweaks, polish it here, a rewrite there, and then boom a new better text. But the NC restriction makes it impossible for me to do this.

So potential legal issues make it problematic for me to even *read* OCW text, and when I do, I'm very uncomfortable because I can only "look not touch."

The solution I'd like to propose is to make OCW participants aware of this issue, and have each faculty member decide how to handle it. If some faculty insists on an NC clause, they probably have good reasons which should be respected. I'd also like to make it easy for OCW participants to make their texts available. All it would take is some standard tag that says, Joe, you can do what you want with this text. I'd also like to create an "attic" consisting of texts that faculty don't think that they need any more. Finally, I'd like to get OCW to encourage student authoring of text.

I care about mostly about doing certain things that would make it easier for me to be a student. I don't care about *how*, if someone tells me that my concerns aren't warranted and I can cut and paste things from OCW into wikitext, that's fine. I do care a lot about *where*. Eventually someone is going to figure all of this out (especially that I've posted the issue on the internet). If *one* school or *one* faculty member reads this and then licenses their work under a copyright that I can work with, then my efforts will be directed toward working with that school and that faculty member.

At an abstract level, it shouldn't matter where or who, but at a concrete level I am an alumni and someone who deeply cares and wants to love MIT, I think it would be a shame if MIT doesn't lead on this issue.

There is a line from a short story "I want to love you, but if you do not love me, and you will not let me love you, I must hate you." It pretty accurately describes my feelings toward a lot of things including MIT, physics, and the MIT OCW project. Physicists and large institutions often find it uncomfortable to talk about love and hate. Physicists and corporate managers, we don't have feelings. (HA!!!)

Part of what I'm trying to figure out right now is how to direct my passions and energies in a way that gets the most stuff accomplished and has the least risk of personal damage.

I've been really fired up since the reunion since someone in a position of authority (President Hockfield) gave me "permission to be passionate at and about MIT." One thing that I need to find out pretty quickly before I invest a lot of time is whether or not what I'm trying to do are "impossible" or "merely difficult." If for political, cultural, or logistic reasons, what I'm trying to do is "impossible" at MIT then it's better for me to cut my losses and work on plan B before I damage myself in the process.

But what makes me optimistic is that we are even having this conversation in the open. The culture of MIT encourages this sort of thing, even more so than most academic institutions and certainly more than most corporations.




1 Comment »

  1. […] Which is a long-winded way of saying I appreciate Joseph Wang’s passion for open sharing, but I’m frankly not sure I can keep up with him and keep my day job! See his posts here, here, here and here. Anyway, I’m happy to keep up a dialogue, but unless we can bring a little more focus to it, I’m not sure I can respond effectively. I’d like to hear carefully reasoned support for the repeated assertion that the NC clause kills mass collaboration, as I’m still not convinced on that point. Why for instance, would Wikipedia have been less successful had they included an NC clause? Are there comparisons of NC vs. non-NC projects out there that demonstrate this effect? […]

    Pingback by OpenFiction [ Blog ] » A note about passion — June 19, 2006 @ 12:21 pm

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