Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ethics, Copyright, and Information Literacy, by Jacob Berg

[Editor’s Note: I asked Jake Berg to publish this piece on LtaYL after sitting with him in the hearing on the draft Framework at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas. My thoughts on this document are very similar to his, and I knew he’d put my feelings/perceptions into words better than I could.]

For the first time since 2000, the Association of College and Research Libraries will update their Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, replacing it with a more flexible Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. 

The second draft of this Framework, released last month, includes a new definition of information literacy. 
[A] repertoire of understandings, practices, and dispositions focused on flexible engagement with the information ecosystem, underpinned by critical self-reflection. The repertoire involves finding, evaluating, interpreting, managing, and using information to answer questions and develop new ones; and creating new knowledge through ethical participation in communities of learning, scholarship, and practice. (2)
Upon seeing this definition, I wrote (on my own blog)
That "ethical participation" was included here is a huge step forward. It creates a discursive space in which it is possible to turn the library into a site of resistance, a bulwark against government and corporate surveillance, as well as an entree into a discussion of the costs of knowledge that are a part of scholarly communication. I hope this section of the definition is our point of departure to tackle these and related issues
It’s this last part, the “ethical participation,” that I’d like to focus on, because later in the draft Framework the authors devote a frame, a series of related threshold concepts, knowledge practices and abilities, and dispositions, to the value of information.
Experts understand that this value designates information as intellectual property, and therefore, recognizes three important dimensions of value. First, information can act as a commodity, and as such, creators can use their work for financial, reputational, social, or civic gains. These motivations may determine how information sources are shared whether given freely, offered for sale, or leased for temporary access. Information users have responsibilities as both consumers and creators of information based on the work of others. Academic and legal practices such as proper attribution of sources and complying with copyright are a result. (12)
Putting information as a commodity front and center and tying it to various "gains"? Consumers listed before creators? Complying with a copyright regime that every information professional should know is broken, at odds with the common good and encouraging innovation?

In the Knowledge Practices (Abilities) section of this frame, titled “Information has Value,” a threshold concept is to "Understand that intellectual property is a social construct that varies by culture," (12) but the above excerpt reifies much of what is wrong with the North American conception of intellectual property, and may be at odds with "ethical participation" mentioned elsewhere in the document.

Information has Value, yes. Well, we librarians also have values. Here’s a selection of things that have been written on the topic:

And these values happen to conflict with parts of the law. In particular, copyright law which (as I’ve already mentioned) I think most of us agree is broken at the federal level.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution authorizes Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Yet these “limited Times” keep expanding at the expense of the public domain. In 1790 a copyright would last for fourteen years, plus another fourteen for a renewal. Twenty-eight years later, all could benefit from a patent or creation. In 2014, some works can take as many as one-hundred-and twenty years to enter the public domain, and often these are “works for hire,” enriching not the creator of a work, but its distributor, at the expense of a public that could benefit from, build on, or reuse the work. (Source.) When you look at a partial list of works that would have been publicly available on January 1st, 2014 without our current intellectual property regime, it puts things into perspective.

We are at the point where, in 2013, Maria Pallente, United States Register of Copyrights, called for an overhaul of the US intellectual property regime. Indeed, this is the rare issue where bipartisan cooperation may be possible, with Derek Khanna on the right and Lawrence Lessig on the left, among others.

Is it ethical for librarians to teach students to respect a law that few of us respect? We know that members of the communities we serve will create knowledge, and they have rights that come with that creation. We also know that our communities want to participate in and interact with the cultural milieus in which we find ourselves. Using Legos to reenact a scene from a movie and then uploading a video of that to YouTube, for example, or using pop culture items/something else in educational settings without the threat of a lawsuit. We want to participate in what Lessig terms "remix culture," and we want to use culture to reach out to our communities.

Our professional ethics and values and the current copyright regime are in conflict. While the American Library Association lobbies for change while supporting the current intellectual property regime, how are we information professionals going to proceed? Because I'd rather not support this particular law, set of laws, at the expense of what I believe, and at the expense of professional ethics. There is too much at stake for us to behave in any other way. How will you reconcile "ethical participation" and copyright in the Framework in your communities?

Jacob Berg is library director at a small, academic library in Washington, DC. This is his second contribution to LtaYL, the first was “Doing Research Lets You Justify Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing.” He blogs about libraries and beer, roughly in that order, at and is on Twitter, @jacobsberg.

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