FOSS Open Content/Policy Implications

At the moment, no official policy exists with respect to Open Content. One reason for this is the fact that Open Content works primarily within the domain of private contracts and is largely voluntary. On the other hand, there is a significant amount of work that has been done on the reform of global copyright law. In the arena of access to learning materials, for instance, it is argued that governments should ensure that they use the greatest flexibilities available to them within the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) framework[66] to ensure that national copyright laws have adequate access provisions. In the larger global framework, there are also similar movements, such as the Access to Knowledge (A2K) treaty process, which ties itself with the development agenda at the World Intellectual Property Organization.

The Draft Access to Knowledge (A2K) Treaty
Access to Knowledge has become a key term in copyright debates, and increasingly, a

number of people are using the phrase as a means to counter the effects of stricter copyright laws on the ability of people to access knowledge. The Consumer Project on Technology (CPTech) released a draft treaty on A2K in 2005.The objectives of the treaty are to protect and enhance [expand] access to knowledge, and to facilitate the transfer of technology to developing countries. It seeks to provide a balance against other international agreements, such as the TRIPS agreement, and institutionalizes a broader framework of exceptions and limitations to copyright law.
There have also been a number of other global initiatives that seek to promote the aims of the A2K movement, including the A2K project at the Yale University School of Law.

One of the challenges that needs to be addressed is the question of the grounds on which policy questions can be framed within the Open Content movement. The significance of this question stems from the limitation of the Open Content movement's ability to tackle content which already exists under copyright, and content that may be produced in the future which is based, for instance, on public funding.

On the first question, there may be little that can be done within an Open Content framework, and some of these questions are best addressed through a combined strategy of copyright reform and perhaps the use of national right-to-information laws, wherever they exist. On the second question, however, there may be some interesting possibilities. The demand of public intellectual property for public money is certainly not a new one, but one that can be combined with the normative goals of the Open Content movement. Additionally, the success of the Open Content movement in particular areas can become the basis for strengthening the claim that there is a direct linkage between Open Content and greater access to information and knowledge.

While the overall policy framework of many developing countries targets developmental goals like the Millennium Development Agenda, they often tail to link these policies with questions of the dissemination of research. By following strong copyright models within the university system and for government research, they end up not serving the goals of greater dissemination and easier access.

Some of the key areas for policy makers to consider include:

  • Open Content policy to enable access to publicly funded research;
  • Access to primary material such as research data;
  • Financial, technological and other support for Open Access and Content repositories; and
  • Support for publications based on Open Content resources.

This movement can find a number of synergies with existing campaigns and policy reform efforts, including the Open Access movement. The specific claim could be made towards universities, publicly funded research, and also partially towards privately owned content for specific uses, including access for visually disabled people, etc. At a minimum, policy interventions should be directed towards making traditional publications convert their material to ensure free access or to Open Content at least after a few months of enjoying exclusive publications rights. There should also be efforts to integrate various policy strands, for instance, between research and development on the one hand and the education department on the other.

It is also important to note that the problem does not merely lie with government policies but also with educational institutions, which are supported - either in full or in part - by public funding. This criticism is also true of funding agencies and non-governmental organizations that are supported by public funding. in other words there is a serious and urgent need for all public institutions to examine the public availability of the knowledge that they produce, and the most effective strategies for further dissemination. For the reasons already outlined in this e-primer, it would make immense sense for them to start moving towards an open Content / Open Access paradigm.

Another critical area that policy makers should consider is the question of distribution and dissemination. More often than not, the question of distribution is ignored in the debate on making information more accessible. While Open Content makes information more freely available and devoid of the usual restrictions that exist, it does not automatically solve the question of distribution. Policy makers would benefit from thinking about an effective distribution and dissemination strategy to supplement the effectiveness of Open Content.

Having said that, it is perhaps important to recognize that the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the Open Content movement may still derive from its appeal to a voluntary community working with an alternative ethical paradigm.