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Songs on the Security of Networks
a blog by Michał "rysiek" Woźniak

Black PR around Polish e-Textbooks

This is an ancient post, published more than 4 years ago.
As such, it might not anymore reflect the views of the author or the state of the world. It is provided as historical record.

Black PR campaign against e-textbooks in Poland that trundles through polish media is a premeditated attack against our right to education. For years now open education resources proponents have been fighting for resources available on permissive, or “libre”, licenses, allowing for copying, remixing and spreading them around – so that teachers are not afraid to make a copy of an application used in class or a textbook needed for their homework. This freedom is jeopardized by particular interests of a couple of publishing companies.*

Much has been said lately in Poland about (or rather, mainly against) the plan to bring electronic textbooks and open education resources to Polish public schools. What is worth noting: while the critique was usually aimed at financial, technical or procedural issues, the real source of ire for those behind this campaign are, in fact, the libre licenses themselves.

What are libre licenses

In almost every textbook on one of the first or last pages you will find the text “all rights reserved”. It’s a reminder that they are also covered by copyright laws, and that rightsowners’ (publishers’, authors’) express consent is required to copy, redistribute or modify it.

Libre licenses invert this situation, by expressly and unequivocally giving such consent to anybody interested in doing so, as long as they retain proper attribution of authorship. No need to ponder if it is legal to share libre licensed music (e.g. downloaded from Jamendo) nor if we can re-use a Wikipedia article – libre licenses these sites sport for the content are a loud and clear “sure thing, go ahead!”

This, for reasons that should be pretty obvious, has a lot of sense in education. Open education resources allow teachers and students to use, re-use, modify, improve, supplement and share – or even publish their own versions of them! – without the fear of running afoul of complicated copyright laws. It is the proven model behind, for example, free software and Wikipedia – however, when used in in education, apart from providing for better, more complete and upt-to-date learning materials, it also helps foster deeper student and teacher involvement in the process.

And of course, parents (especially of more than one child) could also feel the purely financial advantage such model offers them, as instead of buying, year by year, new textbooks, they could just download the updated version. All this is possible with libre licensing of education resources.

Almost everybody engaged in education – students, parents, teachers – libre licenses are a huge step forward. They allow creativity to thrive, save money, enable updating of the resources by third parties (instead of writing them anew from scratch each time) and fight the digital exclusion (anybody can prepare a braille version without even having to ask for permission), while at the same time giving students practical idea on how copyright law works.

However, such culture of sharing is (at least seemingly) incompatible with business models of large publishing companies, hence the current black PR campaign against e-textbooks. The question remains: should such a purely business issue be a problem of students, parents and teachers?

Libre business

Regardless of what the publishers would like you to think, there are several examples of business models perfectly compatible with libre licensing and open education resources.

It is because they are libre-licensed, open education resources can (and should!) be used and improved upon by the publishers, regardless of who was the original author. There is not a single reason why the publishers cannot prepare professional printed versions, after all many parents will prefer them to printing at home! Textbooks will need appropriate exercise books, tests, other materials – and thanks to the libre license of the textbook any publisher will have the ability of preparing those.

Publishers could even prepare specially adapted versions for certain class profiles – removing unneeded material and extending upon certain relevant sections. Not only can they do that – this possibility is in and of itself one of the reasons for creating open education resources.

Conjuration of reality

Publishing business does not want to acknowledge all that, because it spells changes. Instead of trying to find new business models, new ways of operating, compatible with libre licenses (and the future of education in Poland) – publishers prefer to treat open education resources as a “problem” that needs “solving”, using lawyers and PR agencies.

Changes will inevitably come, regardless of how those opposed to them try to conjure the reality. Respected education centres around the world also see that: Harvard University asked its staff to publish their work on libre licenses, instead of in science periodicals sporting proprietary licensing schemes. This will supposedly allow it to save 3.5 million dollars each year, at the same time rising availability of scientific research within the scientific community and well beyond it.

Polish education has a chance to not only follow this example, but go further. Polish libre-licensed e-textbooks is already commented broadly in education communities around the world. As far as open education goes, Poland can become a true leader.

Should, then, profits of a few publishing businesses stand in the way of better, more affordable and modern education?