Sunday, February 27, 2011

Using OER and OSS to Protect Taxpayer Entitlements

In a recent blog post titled "Openness, Socialism and Capitalism" David Wiley argues that one of the reasons OER should be promoted is that it forwards the interests of the taxpayer through the protection of contracts and property rights. Summarized, Wiley argues that taxpayers should be entitled to the intellectual property that is produced and funded by taxpayer dollars. By licensing this property as OER, that entitlement is protected. However, conversely, if the intellectual property is privatized that entitlement is jeopardized. (Wiley doesn’t say so directly but this is essentially a Nozickian view of justice where goods are distributed on the basis of existing titles and contracts rather than on the basis of something else like utilitarianism or egalitarianism.)

Since by vocation I’m more of a technologist than an an academic I’m always interested in how the ideals and arguments of OER apply to OSS. While OER is not the same as OSS, it’s worth noting that with regard to this particular issue OSS licenses also serve the taxpayer’s interest. When universities (and university technologists) acquire software – especially big ERP systems or LMSs – they don’t just use the software, they often also help to make the software better by reporting bugs, writing ancillary documentation, suggesting design improvements, and doing local quality assurance testing. When the software is OSS, those taxpayer funded labors get embedded in property that is publicly owned. However, when the software is something other than OSS there’s a weaker guarantee that the value produced by that labor will remain in the public domain.

Since college and university technologists labor behind the scenes it’s not always transparent where they labor, how all that taxpayer money is being spent, or where all the value that is produced by that labor ends up. But a good portion of it, instead of being handed directly back to the taxpayer, is leveraged most directly by the software companies whose bugs we uncover and whose user communities we foster.

As charitable institutions universities shouldn’t be too grudging in how the value which they add to the world is distributed. The university's intellectual property should be there for anyone to take whether those people are taxpayers or private corporations trying to advance the latest innovations. But OSS and OER ensure that everyone has an opportunity to benefit and that the intellectual property funded through taxpayer funded labor remains a taxpayer entitlement.

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