15 Unlearning Restrictions Culture

by Alycia Sellie

A few years ago, I was part of a panel called “Copyright, Fair Use and Open License Tools Online”  at the CUNY IT Conference. What I remember most about this session was the discussion. After my colleagues and I had finished our presentations–which outlined ways to alternatively license a work, Open Access issues, and Fair Use–a CUNY faculty member reflected that they hadn’t realized just how much there was to consider when publishing academic work–from the ways one might use an open license, to negotiating green or gold open access to their work with a publisher. This participant wondered why the topic of authors’ rights hadn’t been discussed with them before, and how they might now spread the word to colleagues about the many options that are available.

Librarians at CUNY have been working to fill this gap that our colleague inquired about at that panel in 2011. We’ve been offering authors’ rights workshops at many campus libraries where we begin conversation about what rights and restrictions we all can investigate and negotiate while sharing our work. But I think a bigger piece of this discussion for me has been to try to foster moments in which we feel free to unlearn or re-learn, or where we might feel confident to challenge the status quo, or to shed hegemonic tendencies that keep us from exploring new futures.

Copyright Machine by doctormo

Copyright Machine by doctormo

Those of us involved in the MOOC “The History and Future of (mostly) Higher Education” talked about unlearning in particular during our lunchtime discussion last week. During these discussions, I’ve been thinking back to a formative class I took in high school where we explored the history of the United States through a progression of landmark Supreme Court cases. Not only did it teach me quite a bit about a variety of decisions that have set precedent for our laws today, it also strengthened my ability to see these laws as constructs, as conversations, and as works in progress. I remember realizing in that class more than I ever had before that laws are plastic, and that they can (and often should) be altered. I’ve been feeling really indebted to that teacher (thanks Zanner!) for helping us all to think through what we discussed in that classroom, because our conversations have shaped my approaches since when I contemplate rules, regulations, and governance.

Since last week, I’ve been thinking about how one can foster un-learning, re-learning, or cultivate tendencies to break from tradition and reset our thinking anew. This can be hard with topics that are ingrained, intimidating–or that can be made to feel more permanent than they are, like the law. Like our colleague described at the CUNY IT Conference, it can be difficult to imagine alternatives at times, or to see the full landscape of an issue, rather than just our one perch’s perspective. Copyright is one topic that feels complex and proscribed, and it can be difficult to think our way around all the myriad ways that we have been taught to uphold the sort of permissions culture that it generates. And yet as we move into a world that insists we all become makers and coders and sharers, I think it becomes increasingly important to consider the licenses (or the restrictions, or the permissions) that regulate our activities–not just for the things we make, but also for the things we read, download, share and use.

Mimi & Eunice Dreadful Business Model

Mimi & Eunice Dreadful Business Model

I suppose what I’m really asking here is how, and in what ways, should we re-learn, or unlearn standard approaches to copyright? And what role does this conversation have inside of scholarly communications discourses today? And within libraries? How do those of us who believe in open access or free software share what we know without propagandizing or becoming the next thing to forget, and to unlearn?

Alycia Sellie is a Librarian at the Graduate Center CUNY.

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