Recently, one of my Twitter friends pointed out a collection of digitized material being made available online by a company known for doing great work in making otherwise marginalized, radical works digitally accessible. But she was troubled by what she saw was an over-reaching attempt to open the material beyond what had been expressly permitted by the creators and others involved in the projects.
I too was concerned.
It turns out that the material in this collection of “the powerful voices of feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Latinos, gays, lesbians and more” (Reveal Digital, n.d.) has been cleared by the copyright owners for a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License.
That is good news. And there are plans, based on creator consent it seems, to make the work more open at a later date. Also good.
Yet, the entire website is marked by a footer that only claims a Creative Commons Attribution License.
That is confusing. Particularly as this footer shows up on all pages of the collection, including those pages from which users can access specific content from the collection.
This collection is not open with a CC BY license, yet. Nonetheless, the way the site is set up, it appears not only to be open to that license but also intellectually owned by the company responsible for its digitization.
I by no means believe this company is intending to do harm or mislead. And yet, this kind of open confusion happens all the time. This company is by no means the first to do something like this, and it certainly won’t be the last.
There are many who seem to embrace the tenets of open access uncritically and push wholeheartedly for others to do the same. For the most part, they do so for the sake of social justice, bridging the information divide by making research materials freely available to all regardless of economic fortune or lack thereof.
Yet, in many ways, this uncritical act of opening all things to all people is in and of itself an act of aggression and oppression. It is a form of cultural and informational colonialism, taking the works of the marginalized—such as the feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Latinos, gays, lesbians and more” mentioned above—and forcing it into (uncompensated) availability without their express consent.
I’ve written before on the oppressive perils of open access as we conceive of it; this is just another word of caution to add to the mix: We have to be careful that in our quest for openness, we’re not, wittingly or unwittingly, taking away someone else’s agency in controlling their work.
Don’t get me wrong. Openness is great and should be encouraged. I encourage it myself. But it should also be chosen and not forced. The decision to make work open should be accompanied by full agency and volition. The students required to make final course projects open in order to receive credit; the scholars required to make their work open in order to get published; the filmmaker required to make their work open in order to have it included in a digital collection—all should be permitted to choose openness of their own free will and without the shade of oppression.
We have to remember that open access does not exist in a vacuum. It enters into our ways of creating and sharing knowledge based on a society built on oppression and marginalization. Those with power and privilege can make choices about what can and should be open, but those without often lack that same agency. We must remain cognizant of that power imbalance and make our policies accordingly. Openness is great, but like everything else, it’s only great when entered with full consent.