Thursday Threads: Open Source Advocates Twitch at Blackboard’s Strategy and Effect of Copyright/DRM on Access

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Thursday Threads has been a back-burner activity for quite a while now. Blame it on too many interesting things happening at home and at work (to say nothing of the early arrival of spring weather). This week will be only a slight exception with just two threads of mention rather than the typical three or four. First is the announcement by Blackboard that it is starting up an open source support division and acquiring/hiring some of the bigger names in that sector. Second is a reflection on two independent stories about the effect of copyright uncertainty and digital rights management on book materials.

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Blackboard Pivots Towards Open Source

Today we are making some big announcements that we know will catch the attention of many members of the education community. Taken together, they speak to a broader shift in our strategy for serving education institutions so we are taking a moment to share some thoughts about our approach.

The high level change is this: Blackboard is becoming a multiple learning platform company that supports both commercially developed software as well as open source solutions.

- An Open Letter to the Education Community, Blackboard Strategy Update

Last week Blackboard announced a four-part strategy to join the open source community: 1. the formation of an open source services group; 2. the acquisition of Moodlerooms and NetSpot; 3. the hiring of Sakai Foundation Board Member Charles Severance to lead Blackboard’s Sakai initiatives; and 4. the announcement of continued support for Angel (a proprietary platform and company that Blackboard acquired in 2009). Phil Hill has a wrap-up of public statements from Blackboard and commercial competitors to Blackboard.

You might remember Blackboard from its now infamous patent lawsuit with competitor Desire2Learn in which Blackboard tried to claim invention rights to the fundamentals of any computer-mediated learning management system. Blackboard initially won the lawsuit but the finding was overturned at the appellate level. That was all after Blackboard issued a “non-assertion pledge” following discussions with both EDUCAUSE and the Sakai Foundation. (Interestingly, the original pledge is no longer available from the Blackboard website; it is available through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.) Blackboard has an extensive history of buying companies and integrating them with its core software, so one has to wonder what this move towards open source means for not only Sakai and Moodle, but for the core Blackboard product as well. Audrey Watters sums up some of the concerns from the open source community while “Dr. Chuck” reflects on the state of institutional support for open source software versus what commercial companies are putting into the effort. Laura Gekeler pulls no punches in contemplating what that means.

There’s been quite a bit of chatter lately about some research by Professor Paul Heald from the University of Illinois. Heald recently delivered a seminar on the stagnating effects of extended copyright terms in the U.S., and blogger Eric Crampton immediately called attention to one data-set about books that is particularly telling (found through Slate) which illustrates what The Atlantic has dubbed “The Missing 20th Century”. It’s the number of titles available from Amazon as new editions (as opposed to used copies) graphed by the decade of original publication:

The source of that massive fall-off at the midpoint is seemingly simple: all books published in the U.S. in 1922 or earlier are in the public domain. What’s immediately apparent from this graph is the fact that copyright is limiting the public’s access to older works—but why and how, exactly? The answer lies in the reality of what a copyright is really worth, commercially, and how long it retains that value—and it sheds light on another problem with copyright law.

- Why The ‘Missing 20th Century’ Of Books Is Even Worse Than It Seems, by Leigh Beadon, Techdirt

DRM is just “a speedbump,” Hachette’s Maja Thomas said at a copyright conference this afternoon. However, opinion within Hachette is clearly divided.

I do wonder what will be left in archives decades from now. It does seem like some forms of creative media are under assault from this double-barrel shotgun: uncertainty of public domain status for content from the 1920s to the 1980s and, arguably when we get our recordkeeping act together on ownership from the 1990s forward, the content will be locked up in digital rights management encoded formats.

(This post was updated on 16-Jun-2014.)