Stewart Brand, author, futurist, and original publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, once proclaimed, "Information wants to be free." Plagiarists, software pirates, file-sharers, and others have claimed the phrase as justification for their actions. If someone posts a document, they reason, it becomes fair game to take and use it.
But what is often neglected is the rest of Brand's comment: "Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine-too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property,' the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better."
Brand's observations are as valid today as they were when he first made them 20 years ago. In higher education, which thrives on the sharing of information, the internet has not only made that sharing easier than ever, it has also made improperly acquiring and using documents easier. No one would suggest that the solution would be to somehow shut down the internet, so other control methods need to be found.
Conventional copyright laws can often be overly restrictive, especially when the creator's intent is to share his or her work openly. That's where the organization Creative Commons enters the picture. Founded in 2001 by Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, CC is a nonprofit devoted to expanding the range of creative work available for others legally to build upon and share. The CC website enables copyright holders to grant some of their rights to the public, while retaining others through a variety of licensing and contract schemes, including dedication to the public domain or open content licensing terms. Its intent is to avoid the problems current copyright laws create for the sharing of information.
"Too often the debate over creative control tends to the extremes," reads the introduction to the site. "At one pole is a vision of total control-a world in which every last use of a work is regulated and in which 'all rights reserved' (and then some) is the norm. At the other end is a vision of anarchy-a world in which creators enjoy a wide range of freedom but are left vulnerable to exploitation. Balance, compromise, and moderation-once the driving forces of a copyright system that valued innovation and protection equally-have become endangered species."
Creative Commons licenses are available for websites, scholarship, music, film, photography, literature, courseware, and other content. So far, more than 4.5 million works have been licensed through Creative Commons. Higher education has also begun to see the value of the Creative Commons model. For example, Rice University (Texas) makes course materials available for distribution and reuse under the CC license through the university's Connexions Repository.
Likewise, the Berklee College of Music (Mass.) offers free, downloadable music lessons from the Berklee Shares website.
Perhaps one of the greatest experiments in protecting owners' rights in an open environment is the OpenCourseWare project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Launched in 2001, the OCW project's goal is to publish and make freely available on the internet course materials from some 2,000 courses. Just five years later the project already lists 1,250 courses, says Steve Carson, senior strategist for OCW at MIT.
OCW was in the planning stages at about the same time Creative Commons was forming, and the two projects share a similar goal. It may even be that the concurrently developed projects influenced one another. "Hal Abelson, one of the MIT faculty who created OCW, certainly knows Larry Lessig," says Carson, "so I wouldn't be surprised if there were some discussions between the two men as the project was developing." Abelson now sits on the CC board of directors.
"Interestingly, the Creative Commons model was almost exactly what we were following at the start," says Carson. "We eventually realized that they were doing the same thing we were doing, so in the last year we went though a process of convergence to make sure that our license lined up exactly with their license so we are now officially adopters of the Creative Common license although we've had a similar license for years. We both came up with the same three principles: attribution, noncommercial use, and share-alike."
Carson explains the principles this way: "We are allowed to publish the materials, and our users can use those materials, as long as the use of those materials is non-commercial. The people using the materials may make derivatives out of them, but, if they do so, their derivative materials have to be made available under the same license. Finally, all the work must be attributed both to MIT and to the faculty members who created the materials."
OCW content creators own the materials posted on the web and retain rights to them. "I think that is one of the brilliant things about OCW," says Carson. "There is discussion on many campuses about who owns what when it comes to teaching materials, but the Creative Commons model resolves those questions. Faculty maintain ownership of all of their materials, and they grant us a license to publish those materials under very specific conditions."
One of those conditions, he explains, is that the spirit of open sharing is maintained, and reusing the material for commercial purposes violates the license. If someone wants to use the materials, they are ethically and legally obligated by the license to make their materials available for free. From that perspective, the Creative Commons license discourages "stealing" the information for purposes of repackaging it for profit.
Although abuses are infrequent, Carson says, MIT will step in to halt improper use. "We've had a few instances of commercial uses that we weren't comfortable with," Carson notes, "and usually a letter from the MIT legal office is sufficient to put an end to it. More often, people come to us and ask whether what they intend is a use we're comfortable with or not, and we'll say yes or no, and try to explain as clearly as possible why."
Besides the idea that such a practice keeps the information free, it also encourages collaboration, something that a traditional copyright can't. "We hope that a technical solution will emerge for people to begin to repost materials," says Carson. "Say they've taken materials off our site and created a derivative work mixed in with other materials. We'd like to enable them to post those back on the web in a place where people can find them. We hope it will develop sort of an ecology of teaching materials. MIT faculty favors the idea. They are hoping to see improvements made to their materials as well."
The OCW project has definitely raised the level of understanding of intellectual property (IP) issues on the MIT campus, Carson says, which can only be a good thing. Beyond protecting IP, he believes there are other compelling reasons for universities to share their materials openly under the Creative Commons banner.
"In our latest evaluation of OCW, we found that of this year's freshman class, 35 percent of the students who were aware of OCW before they applied said it was a significant influence on their decision about where to go. It is clearly a recruiting tool for us," he says, "and when we're competing for the best and the brightest against other top schools, any recruiting advantage is a big help."
The site has also seen tremendous adoption by the larger MIT community, with 71 percent of students using the site, along with 59 percent of faculty and 42 percent of alumni-all of whom claim to actually use the site to achieve their goals.
But what happens when a university or a publisher wants to distribute information, but still has reason to limit access to its contents? For them, a digital rights management (DRM) solution allows greater protection of intellectual property while still allowing for open sharing.
Jacques Francoeur, information assurance evangelist for Adobe, says there's been an evolution in industry best practices for the protection of sensitive information. "Organizations are usually aware of their responsibilities within their enterprise, which is a traditional intranet, but when they send the information out to a third party, that's where the breakdown for ensuring adequate protection occurs."
Although these companies eventually added contractual obligations to protect information to an adequate level when the document was transferred to someone else, there was no verification that those obligations were observed.
"The information was out of control," says Francoeur. "There was no mechanism to determine whether protections were being provided. Just because you give it to another party, it does not mean that your responsibilities end. In fact, we are now seeing HIPAA and other regulations articulating the chain-of-custody responsibility that organizations have. The only way you can fulfill your responsibility is to be able to protect information persistently throughout the entire life of the document, from creation to destruction."
Adobe's LiveCycle Document Security solution gives content creators the ability to preserve confidentiality and authenticity at the document level. For higher education, that ability is a welcome one. Like other institutions, The Pennsylvania State University has been battling the increasing problem of fraudulent diplomas and transcripts. The problem was reflected in recent news headlines about government officials, athletic directors, and others who had altered academic records or claimed diplomas that weren't deserved.
"Each year, Penn State receives about 120,000 requests from students and alumni who need copies of their official transcripts," reports J. James Wager, assistant vice president for undergraduate education and university registrar. "Employers, graduate schools, and professional certifying agencies require a high level of certainty that the academic credential was issued by Penn State, not a 'diploma mill,' and that the document has not been altered."
The university had allocated enormous resources to manually handle that demand, but as requests increased, it turned to an online solution from GeoTrust, an Adobe partner, that allowed the transcripts to be delivered electronically. The Certified Transcript Service also allows administrators to ensure the authenticity of the information with proof that it came from that university.
The product incorporates the ubiquitous Adobe Reader and can interpret and react with technology on Penn State's server side to authenticate the information. "When the Reader opens a certified document, you get a blue ribbon that says, essentially, that you can trust this document," Francoeur says. "It's from Penn State and the information has not been modified."
Adobe DRM is a two-sided solution that protects highly sensitive information with persistent control over who has access to it, and what they can do with that access. Because it isn't platform-dependent, it can protect a multitude of documents, including PDF, Microsoft Office files, and CAD files. "More sensitive information is kept in Excel files than anywhere else," says Francoeur.
Perhaps the strongest feature of the DRM solution is that the controls are dynamic. They can be revoked or updated at anytime, regardless of where the information has been distributed, because the document has to "call home" before it can be opened. It automatically checks its privilege profile to see what privileges the current user is allowed.
"The only exception is that you can define an offline 'lease period.' For example, you can allow someone to access the document offline for five days," says Francoeur. "But as soon as those five days have passed, the document will not open again unless it can call home and verify the user's access. And if an employee has been terminated, you can revoke their privileges across the board to all documents instantly, even if those documents are fully within their control, such as on their laptop or on a CD."
Finally, Adobe DRM provides an audit trail, linked to a document, of all activity on that document. That is extremely valuable when it comes to demonstrating compliance to regulations. Document creators can show that they provided only authorized access to that document throughout its life.
"There are other, less risk-centered uses around the university," suggests Francoeur. "If you're having a meeting you can circulate reports in advance, and see on the audit logs exactly who opened the documents."
It might not seem to fit in the same discussion, but digital rights management can also help lower the cost of textbooks and make an instructor's job easier.
Narayan Sainaney, president of Vitrium Systems, says DRM is not just about a publisher's needs. "It's also about students and their needs. If you look at students' established behaviors on the internet, regardless of whether they are legal or not, you have things like peer-to-peer networks and other exchange media, where information is shared all around the world," he says. "If I receive a document and I really like the content, I tend to share it with my peers. I believe DRM should actually encourage that behavior pattern. We're not trying to change students' established behavior patterns; instead we want to encourage it and say here's a document that has the intelligence to decide whether you should be able to open and view certain sections of it or not, but feel free to share it with anyone."
Vitrium's products, Protectedpdf and Protectedpdf.crm, enable this sharing with secure control and audit access to sensitive documents. If a user decides the content is important enough, he or she can instantly purchase it by clicking a built-in button. "After it's purchased, it's not up to the end user to protect the intellectual property of the publisher," Sainaney says. "I think it's the obligation of the publishers, and there is the technology out there to ensure that the publishers' rights to the content are taken care of."
Sainaney believes users should be treated as potential evangelists for the document. If the content really impresses them, they can share that with their peers, who, after viewing the preview, must also make the decision to purchase the full content. The document always resides on the purchaser's computer in a locked system. Even if it has been unlocked and offers offline access, it can't be transmitted by e-mail or on a P2P network, because the document locks itself up again.
"We're not in the business of changing the business model to dictate how publishers do things," says Sainaney. "The way we see it, technology should adapt to the publisher's business needs, as opposed to the publisher having to adapt to whatever technology is available."
Students can potentially save a small fortune on textbook costs by being able to preview the content before deciding to buy. They can choose to purchase it at the chapter level and purchase only the chapters they need.
"If they decide they need or want the chapter, they can carry out the transaction right from within the document," says Sainaney. "It's completely seamless."
Publishers can now freely distribute content to students, but because it is rights-managed, the student must go through the process of acquiring the document. The technology has the intelligence to ensure that only appropriate people are able to see the content. There is nothing to prevent someone from sending the document, but it is unusable beyond the permissions that have been granted, without an unlock code.
To date, publishers have conveyed the message that educators are not supposed to photocopy textbooks, but Vitrium's solution is a 180-degree turnaround. "We have a model where professors can choose to mix and match content from multiple textbooks to really customize the texts for a specific course," Sainaney says. Because the content is rights-managed, the professor can take these documents and e-mail them to students, or even post them on a course management system such as WebCT or Blackboard.
"We want publishers not to be thinking from a physical good standard but from an abstract standard-what they are selling is no longer a physical good, it's a bundle of rights to specific content," says Sainaney. "That bundle of rights can be defined in terms of the right to view the content, to print it, or otherwise."