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New Bill Proposes Open Source Requirement for Publicly Funded Books 317

Posted by timothy
from the return-to-the-commonwealth dept.
fsufitch writes "On September 30th, the 'Open College Textbook Act of 2009' was introduced to the Senate and referred to committee. The bill proposes that all educational materials published or produced using federal funds need to be published under open licenses. The reasoning behind it takes into account the changing way information is distributed because of the Internet, the high price of college and textbooks, and the dangerously low college graduation rates in the US. Will a bill such as this endanger publishing companies in the same way Internet journalism endangers traditional journalism?"
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New Bill Proposes Open Source Requirement for Publicly Funded Books

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  • Seems fair to me. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by WiiVault (1039946) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:11PM (#29608689)
    If the public pays for the research and creation they should have access to the intellectual product for no additional fee. It's silly that it isn't this way now. Of course we can all thank our corrupt congress critters for that.
  • Yep (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Trailer Trash (60756) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:12PM (#29608701) Homepage

    Will a bill such as this endanger publishing companies in the same way Internet journalism endangers traditional journalism?"

    Yep. That's why it'll never pass - expect large amounts of money to flow into key campaign coffers to put an end to this nonsense before it gets started. At some point we need to have congressmen who aren't bought and paid for by special interests.

    By the way - for those of you who say "yeah, but this open source stuff is a special interest, too", no, it isn't. It's a *general interest*. It benefits everybody but a select few, rather than benefiting a select few at the expense of everybody else.

  • Long overdue (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tomkost (944194) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:13PM (#29608717)
    Basic K-12 and Undergrad materials and course work do not change that much. Why shouldn't there be open source materials available? If they are publicly funded in any way, it should have been a requirement long ago. I for one used to refuse to sell my books back to the store for pennies on the dollar. It was always better to keep them or give to another student. With open source, more people could afford to go to university.
  • by Just Some Guy (3352) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:13PM (#29608727) Homepage Journal

    Will a bill such as this endanger publishing companies in the same way Internet journalism endangers traditional journalism?

    If you accept public money, you have to accept public obligations. I'd have no sympathy for a publisher that received federal funding but disliked the conditions put on it.

  • Not worried... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:15PM (#29608759) Homepage

    Will a bill such as this endanger publishing companies in the same way Internet journalism endangers traditional journalism?

    And if it does, then what?

    It's not the government's job to protect particular business models or industries from technological innovation. It's also not particularly the government's job, in my opinion, to go out of its way to give money to private companies without a compelling public interest. Even before open source licenses were commonplace, I would have argued that any intellectual property generated with public funds should automatically be put into the public domain. Making it open source is a possible alternative, but if materials are generated with my tax dollars, I shouldn't generally have to pay again to use them.

  • by qoncept (599709) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:15PM (#29608767) Homepage
    Yeah, I'd say it's pretty much common sense. A city doesn't pay to have a playground built in a park just so the construction company can say who can and can't use it.
  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:17PM (#29608777) Homepage
    At a philosophical level, this is a really good idea. There's no good reason that taxpayer money should go to things which aren't available to taxpayers. This is the same logic as making publicly funded research need to appear openly. However I'm puzzled a bit by the summary:

    The reasoning behind it takes into account the changing way information is distributed because of the Internet, the high price of college and textbooks, and the dangerously low college graduation rates in the US

    The fraction of the population that has gone to college had been steadily increasing over the last 50 years. One major result of that is that what constitutes a college education has in many ways been reduced. There are good and bad arguments about what has happened with college education over the last few years but there's no plausible way to describe the college graduation rate as dangerously low unless one thinks that a priori everyone should graduate college like everyone should graduate high school. That's not an easy case to make.

  • Killing publishers (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FuegoFuerte (247200) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:17PM (#29608793)

    Will a bill such as this endanger publishing companies in the same way Internet journalism endangers traditional journalism?

    We can only hope it will kill the publishers, the way they've been killing US college kids for years. Do you think college kids would eat such a steady diet of ramen noodles if they weren't spending all their money on textbooks? Have you ever compared the cost of textbooks in the US to the SAME books overseas? Take a look at amazon.co.uk sometime and compare a textbook there to the same book in the US. The only difference is likely that one says "international version" on the cover. Oh, and it'll be less than half the price.

    No, a bill such as this won't endanger publishing companies... publishing companies have endangered themselves by pissing off their customers with insanely high pricing. Maybe something like this would finally bring competition to the textbook industry and help make school a little more affordable.

  • by edrobinson (976396) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:18PM (#29608815)
    Seems to me that anything - books, medical procedures and devices, pharmaceuticals, etc. - belong to the public and we should not have to pay for them...
  • arg (Score:4, Insightful)

    by wizardforce (1005805) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:26PM (#29608941) Journal

    Copyright was intended to "encourage the arts" not grant special rights to publishers over works that were funded by the public. All publicly funded information should be in the public domain. If publishers don't like it then boo hoo. The only reason they even get copyright rights in the first place is that we, the public, gave them those rights and we are very well within our power to take them away for works that we funded.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:27PM (#29608955)

    Do you think college kids would eat such a steady diet of ramen noodles if they weren't spending all their money on textbooks?

    No, they'd be drinking more beer.

    Think of the breweries, you insensitive clod!

  • Re:Yep (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Darkness404 (1287218) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:30PM (#29608997)
    You mean like C-SPAN where you can watch congress debate but its so annoyingly boring that no one watches it?
  • Pattern here. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheWizardTim (599546) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:33PM (#29609031) Journal

    I noticed a pattern here with Congress.

    Step One. Propose a law that would hurt an industry.
    Step Two. Receive large campaign donations to stop that law.
    Step Three. ???
    Step Four. Re-election!

  • by causality (777677) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:37PM (#29609067)

    If the public pays for the research and creation they should have access to the intellectual product for no additional fee. It's silly that it isn't this way now. Of course we can all thank our corrupt congress critters for that.

    Look at the reasons given in the summary:

    The reasoning behind it takes into account the changing way information is distributed because of the Internet, the high price of college and textbooks, and the dangerously low college graduation rates in the US.

    Those are all reasons of convenience. There is no principle in them. I don't fault the summary or its author for viewing it this way, as I believe it just reflects where we're at in this superficial society. As you say, there is an overriding reason why any textbooks produced by open funds need to be released with open licenses: because the public is paying the tab and therefore has a right to it. If the publishers don't like that, they can produce and sell goods on their own with no such assistance like almost every other company. This is the outcome that should happen regardless of whether it's convenient or inconvenient for anyone. It sure would be nice if that were more widely appreciated.

  • Re:Yep (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Darkness404 (1287218) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:37PM (#29609071)

    I wasn't aware that the book publishing industry was swimming in as much cash as Hollywood or Microsoft...

    Have you not looked at the price of college textbooks? They take about the same materiel as their first edition 20, 30 years ago, "update" it, rearrange some chapters and sell it for $100+. On top of that many books don't even try to be unbiased or even care for the facts. All they need is three guys who have spent enough money on college degrees and they then have a book.

    So why aren't you voting for one?

    Who says he wasn't? The fact is the US has a very very very broken voting system. It basically narrows every single race down to two parties at most. Even if 5% of the US population believes in something chances are slim that they will even have one vote in congress. We need congressional elections similar to the EU parliament elections where parties get membership based on the % of votes or a smaller federal government. I don't see the second happening anytime soon at least not when Obama controls the white house. So please tell me how you are supposed to get a 3rd party into congress?

  • by thisnamestoolong (1584383) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:39PM (#29609103)

    There are good and bad arguments about what has happened with college education over the last few years but there's no plausible way to describe the college graduation rate as dangerously low unless one thinks that a priori everyone should graduate college like everyone should graduate high school. That's not an easy case to make.

    This is not even to mention the fact that the only reason a college degree ever meant anything in the first place is the not everyone was capable of getting one. This is because college was hard, and you had to be of above average intelligence to be able to graduate. To make college so that everyone can graduate, you need to dumb down the material significantly, so the truly gifted get screwed twice -- 1) Their degree means nothing because everyone else had one and 2) they got a lousy education because the professors had to simplify everything so that the dumbasses could pass.

  • by Sir_Dill (218371) <slashdot.zachula@com> on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:43PM (#29609147) Homepage
    Another way to think about it is this.

    I have already paid for it to be produced because my tax dollars funded the work.

    Since digital replication is essentially free, there are no ongoing production costs for a digital edition beyond the initial work and annual updates (which one would assume are covered by additional public funding)

    Sure you can argue that bandwidth costs money, and disk space costs money, but the reality is that the cost per unit is so low, it would cost more in transaction fees than the actual cost resulting in a net loss on the transaction.

    I am more than happy to cover the printing costs on a hard copy provided they are the actual printing costs and not some inflated figure that the publisher wants to charge

    Say what you want about e-readers, eventually they will supplant books in mainstream society. I am not saying that it's going to happen in this or the next generation but perhaps in three generations we may see people who will prefer an electronic book to the "real thing".

    Just like there are folks who like to dress up in victorian era clothing, there will always be people who prefer "real books" to an e-book.

    Bottom line, we are with ebooks very close to where we were with MP3's a decade ago.

    They (MP3's) did not really gain popularity until the devices to play them became readily available and affordable.

    Until we can make the jump to digital textbooks, regardless of where the money comes from, I don't think changing the licensing is going to make enough of the difference to shift the paradigm to more affordable/available textbooks.

    Besides, it doesn't matter if you read the material or did the coursework. If you don't pay for the privilege of going to school, you don't get a degree and it doesn't change the statistics one bit.

  • by Just Some Guy (3352) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:43PM (#29609149) Homepage Journal

    Exactly! GM accepted bailout money and became Government Motors. Ford didn't like the conditions and didn't accept the money. That funding might look attractive, but don't take the gift if you dislike the strings attached to it.

  • by amicusNYCL (1538833) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:45PM (#29609175)

    That's fine then, that means more public funds available for other projects.

  • Re:Yep (Score:5, Insightful)

    by commodore64_love (1445365) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:45PM (#29609193) Journal

    Prior to CSPAN the Congress used to actually sit on the floor. After CSPAN they started hiding behind closed doors. So really CPSAN didn't reveal government - it just drove it underground.

    What we REALLY need to do is ban all contributions except those that come from registered voters. If you're not a voter, you can't donate to a Congresscritter's campaign. That would eliminate bribes from corporations which skew our system.

  • politics (Score:5, Insightful)

    by shentino (1139071) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:51PM (#29609253)

    Who wants to bet that the publisher's lobby is going to have this bill killed?

  • by Mr. Freeman (933986) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:52PM (#29609277)
    Bullshit. There have been maybe 10 people that have ever run for congress that have anything resembling common sense. Doesn't matter who you vote for, they're going to be idiots. It's just a question of what kind of idiocy you prefer.
  • by TheSpoom (715771) * <slashdot@@@uberm00...net> on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:54PM (#29609301) Homepage Journal

    Of course we can all thank our corrupt congress critters for that.

    Which is why there is precisely zero chance that this bill will pass.

    This is the best type of bill: one that's put forward because someone sees that something being done now could be done in a better way. But publishers have lobbyists and cash, and those always trump the public interest in the US House of Representatives.

  • Re:Not worried... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by NoYob (1630681) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:57PM (#29609325)

    It's not the government's job to protect particular business models or industries from technological innovation.

    I'm in the:

    • Steel
    • Automotive
    • Banking
    • Farming
    • Airline
    • Fishing
    • Teaching
    • Semiconductor
    • Defense

    industries you insensitive clod!

  • Re:Yep (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Jaysyn (203771) <jaysyn+slashdot@gm a i l . c om> on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:59PM (#29609343) Homepage Journal
    That & removing corporate citizenship would go a long way to fixing about 1/2 the problems with this country.

    Slightly more on topic, I wish this bill had been passed last year, would have saved my girlfriend about $600 in books for this semester.  She couldn't even get them used because for some reason, books that have already been registered aren't usable for her classes.  Shade of Stallman's "Right to Read" I tell you!
  • Re:Yep (Score:3, Insightful)

    by radtea (464814) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:06PM (#29609427)

    We need congressional elections similar to the EU parliament elections where parties get membership based on the % of votes or a smaller federal government.

    Why do you want to give private organizations a given fraction of parliament? Parliament should represent people, not parties, and anyone who tells you that their MP is too incompetent to represent their constituents is telling you their MP needs to be replaced. Representational democracy has worked for centuries without anything like the level of partisan capture that exists today, so claims that there are unsolvable problems with it just reflect the ignorance or malicious intent of the person making the argument.

    The world needs less partisan representation, and electoral reform won't get off the ground until the people pushing it realize that the only effective reform will be one that reduces partisan power, not increases it by embedding the existence of parties in the electoral process. I realize that the parties are already deeply embedded in the electoral process in the US, which is one of the main reasons why the American electoral system is so much more broken than virtually anywhere else in the world.

    Electoral reforms have been raised in several Canadian provinces in recent years, and while none of them have passed the proposals in British Columbia, which were less partisan, came a lot closer than the insanely partisan system Ontario voters were presented with.

  • by value_added (719364) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:18PM (#29609627)

    If you accept public money, you have to accept public obligations.

    A noble concept and certainly valid, but consider the corollary.

    We have in the US a political campaign system that's awash in money from private interests. If a politician want to be elected, he needs to raise vast sums of money (mostly to pay for the television commercials). Does that mean a politician should, as a condition of receiving that money, accept those "private obligations"?

    In the real world, public money is routinely provided to private interests, just as private money is routinely funneled into the public realm. The obligations, then, are little more than competing interests, and resolving those interests becomes a matter of politics and negotation. So much for noble precepts.

    That's not to say that defining public policy so that it actually favours the public doesn't work (it certainly does in many areas), just that the fundamental question that needs to be answered is will it work, and if so, how?

  • by Amouth (879122) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:42PM (#29609923)

    If i write code at work - it belongs to the company i work for - and is up to them what happens with it.

    If i write code at home - it belongs to me - and I decied what happens with it.

    If they want to work for a public school and research and write a book - they can:

    A) write it at the office at the school and let the school decide what to do with it
    B) write it at home not at work and then do what ever they want with it.

    There is ZERO reason why a Prof should have the expectation that they can be Paid to work for a school and on that school's money/time work and produce a book in which the Prof can sell for self gain.

  • Re:Yep (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:46PM (#29609961) Journal

    Not only that, but public education in other countries has shown an enormous of success. In fact, in the US between the 50s and 70s, public education was pretty damned good, if for no other reason than battling Reds meant producing lots of engineers, scientists and technicians.

    Other countries like China, Germany and Japan have public education systems, push out a lot of talent (say what you will about Germany, but its scholastic tradition over the last 150 years is absolutely astounding, so it's little wonder that it's the economic workhorse of Europe).

    The problem with Libertarians is that they're so enamored with their fantasy ideology that they refuse to see that the nonsense they're spouting can pretty much be rebutted by historical and extant examples. If public education is so goddamned bad, then why has it worked so bloody well for other industrialized nations?

  • by ZombieRoboNinja (905329) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:48PM (#29609991)

    >they can produce and sell goods on their own with no such assistance like almost every other company

    Except for agribusiness, defense contractors, oil companies, manufacturing, and every other industry sector that receives government subsidies or tax breaks (i.e. an awful lot of them).

  • by Terwin (412356) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:56PM (#29610063)

    or the taxpayers get to keep more of their own money

    Now THAT is funny!

    Just because we work to earn it does not make it ours, at least not in the eyes of politicians.

  • by cetialphav (246516) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @04:11PM (#29610257)

    The professors that write these books will simply reject the U.S. funds

    What kind of a world do you live in where professors reject money? That just doesn't happen. Being a researcher means being on a constant quest for funding much like being a politician means always seeking campaign contributions. Professors make very little money from publishing a textbook. They do it for the prestige of being the person who literally "wrote the book on the subject." There is no financial reason for a professor to turn down funding because the text will have to be freely available. All academics want their work to be easily available and widely referenced. It is the publishers that want to tie up the content.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 01, 2009 @04:37PM (#29610585)

    I would point out that while this is true in general, it does overly simplify the issue a bit. International Editions are almost invariably paperback books printed on cheaper paper. I've seen several that looked to be actually photocopied. While this may be fine for anything needed just for a semester, as a general rule I want books that I can keep, and I don't think most International Editions would last more than a semester in my care.

    I'm all for things that make books cheaper, and I hope that something like this helps. Experience tells me that what will likely end up happening, however, is that cheap "on demand" quality books that look like the International Editions will become more commonplace, and I certainly don't think that is the answer.

  • by mcrbids (148650) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @04:45PM (#29610681) Journal

    If this bill passes, it won't change anything. The professors that write these books will simply reject the U.S. funds and get money from other places like IBM, Microsoft, Ford, and so on. Professors want to be reimbursed for their many hours of work, not give books away for free (or cheap).

    It won't change anything suddenly. We won't suddenly end up with a raft of freely licensed textbooks. But the switch has already begun. Arnold Swarzenegger (sp?) called for open-licensed digital text books like a year ago, and already there's about a dozen e-books with open licenses that are now available. And schools are definitely taking notes, since they are chopping budgets left, right, and center.

    Market forces will drive this change, and the change is all but inevitable. Textbooks won't disappear overnight, but already, I save about 50% on the college textbooks for my wife and kids (all going to school) by hitting up Amazon and Froogle as soon as I get the ISBN #.

    And let us not forget: we're not talking about not paying for curriculum development. In the bill, the state will pay a reasonable wage for developing the curriculum. What we're talking about is *only* paying for curriculum development. A qualified professor could still make a good living producing quality, open-license textbooks. The only difference here is that the professor will only make that good living by producing the books, and not for sales thereafter forever.

    Sooner or later, somebody who is qualified will find this agreement acceptable, and when they do, it's end game for the classic, bloated, inefficient model of the past.

  • by dkleinsc (563838) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @05:30PM (#29611267) Homepage

    The professors that write these books will simply reject the U.S. funds and get money from other places like IBM, Microsoft, Ford, and so on.

    A couple more reasons why this won't happen:
    1. Most professors aren't after cash for their personal bank account. They may be after cash for their research and teaching projects. That's because in academia the primary currency isn't the Almighty Buck but the Almighty Published Research. Among other things, they're usually smart enough that they could make a lot more money working on Wall St, Madison Ave, or a top-notch law firm if they'd been motivated primarily by personal income. A professor motivated by prestige rather than cash would be happy to see their work spread as far and wide as possible to as many people as possible as cheaply as possible.

    2. Many professors who are listed as authors of textbooks don't write the books, and almost never create the new editions. The books are typically written by ghostwriters at the textbook publishing house, and the professor acts as a subject-matter consultant.

  • by dkleinsc (563838) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @05:38PM (#29611369) Homepage

    public private partnership(n): The public gets the bills, a private owner (who happens to be a county commissioner's brother-in-law) gets the profits.

    At least, that's usually how it works.

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @06:02PM (#29611617) Homepage Journal

    If i write code at work - it belongs to the company i work for - and is up to them what happens with it.

    If i write code at home - it belongs to me - and I decied what happens with it.

    Don't think that's universally true. I'd check the small print on your employment contract if I were you.

  • Evidence? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jbn-o (555068) <mail@digitalcitizen.info> on Thursday October 01, 2009 @07:09PM (#29612225) Homepage

    If this bill passes, it won't change anything.

    Then there's no reason not to support the bill. But more along the lines of your undefended assertion: What's your evidence? I need to see what figures you use to arrive at the conclusion quoted above.

    As a matter of principle, I don't see why I should care if people seek other funding sources. As a matter of fact, I find it hard to believe that there will be no takers for public money conditioned on releasing in a manner in line with public use. After all, if we taxpayers paid for the book we should collectively own that work and that means releasing that work to us all under terms that allow sharing, modification, and distribution without royalty. Many government publications already come to us this way and people seem to be okay with continuing to write them.

    Professors want to be reimbursed for their many hours of work, not give books away for free (or cheap).

    So? And there's nothing that says one won't be paid to write such books. Just that one won't retain copyright to said book and be able to control its distribution for as long as copyright allows.

  • Re:Yep (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sjames (1099) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @08:18PM (#29612689) Homepage

    As I think about it further, the schools get ripped off too. The books wear out at different times or get destroyed in various mishaps, but all have to be replaced at once. This forces schools to either overbuy in order to have replacements or to deal with an expanded class or prematurely retire an edition for all new if they don't have enough extra.

  • Re:Yep (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rohan972 (880586) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @09:34PM (#29613131)

    If public education is so goddamned bad, then why has it worked so bloody well for other industrialized nations?

    I tend towards libertarianism but maybe I'm not a "True Libertarian". I'll try to explain my view, but I can't speak for anyone else. I'm not against all government involvement in education or commerce. In Australia, the contents of food sold must be listed on the package in most circumstances. I know there are some who see that as regulation interfering with the free market. Personally I see it as enabling the free market because without that information the buyer cannot make an informed rational choice. Perhaps my opinion violates the "rules of libertarianism" ;) and maybe so in education as well.

    Undoubtedly public education can produce a number of engineers, scientists and technicians. If that were the sole purpose of public education and the sole effect, it would indeed be hard to argue against. Unfortunately that is not the case. Public education has also been used as a method of social control. It's use for this purpose is clearly advocated in the communist manifesto. It's been a long time since I read Mien Kampf but it was certainly used by the Nazi's for this purpose also. I quote the communist manifesto: "The Communists have not invented the intervention of society in education; they do but seek to alter the character of that intervention, and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class."

    It is my contention that compulsory universal school systems will inevitably be used as a method of social control and oppression. Their benefit in producing those engineers, scientists and technicians needs to be considered in this light. What system should be implemented I leave open to debate, but I'd say that open licence textbooks is a huge step in the right direction. I can get that information even if I'm poor, nobody forces me to read that book or agree to it.

    I've seen highly intelligent people here proclaim their dependence on corporations because they believe themselves to be incapable of living independently (ie as self-employed or running their own corporation). I do not accept that they are genetically incapable of that independence but that it has been induced by the method of education implemented on them (and their parents). The very thing that is supposed to benefit them (and does in some ways) has reduced them to slavish dependence on corporate executives and politicians that do not have their best interests at heart. That is my objection to universal public education, I do not see evidence that it is capable of producing any other result. Note my qualification of universal public education. Becoming an educated dependent employee is far preferable to living in grinding poverty and ignorance. I am not in favour of preventing the children of the poor from being helped up because of the ignorance, stupidity or bad luck of their parents.

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