Torrents and Moocs: the paradox of sharing

Time was too short to write a blog last week. To the why I will return later in this blog.

Sometimes things take some time before you make certain combinations. A few weeks ago I saw a documentary over the process against the people of the Pirate Bay in Sweden: the Pirate Bay away from key board.


The last week I was working on a paper, with a colleague of mine, concerning the effects of Moocs on Higher Education: are they disruptive or not?  And suddenly, I am thinking about this paradox between Torrents and Moocs.

People invest in making things, physical or virtual objects. Growth theory tells us that property rights are very important for innovations. Given that

  • most inventions never will become more than a nice idea in the laboratory and
  •  that between the state of creativity and a commercially interesting innovation the organizations has to spend a lot of money,

it is clear that organizations have to earn a lot of money to pay back for all those investments.

So -according to the theory- this earn back period depends on the time  an organization can protect its product or service from becoming replaced by cheaper copy cats. Hence the importance of property rights.

This paradigm is adjusted in recent years, both in practice as in theory. Open innovation still builds on solid property rights but sees a lot of wasting resources because of the closed approach to research and innovation. In practice there are firms who decide against the long period of patenting their inventions, stating that the patenting process in itself increases the possibilities of competing copies and results in losing valuable marketing time (move fast before they catch up).

Yet, the entertainment sector still bases itself on the old growth paradigm. They point to the investments of artist and producers to develop books, music and movies; things that can be digitalized and copies. An interesting exception are paintings. There is a whole industry offering Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and nobody is treating to shut down my printer if I make a color print of a picture of the Rijkswacht of Rembrandt.

However, exchange of digital copies of other artistic products will result in a world where no movies are made, no books will be written and no original music will be composed.

There is something strange with respect to this attitude. When I buy a book or a cd, all rights are mine; I can resell them, give them away or donate them for a good cause. There are even organizations who buy books and leave them in trains and other public places. I can make copies for “home-use” and share those with friends. Sharing in this sense is seen as something good and socially desirable behavior. However, when I buy an electronic book, I can only resell it if I read it online at who put it in a vault. When I resell it, it is not the book I sell, but the combination of this vault. I have the feeling that when I buy something digitalized, I never become the owner but will always rent it in some way. Let alone that people should share on a larger scale, using P2P networks (Pirate Bay) or hosting sites (as Megaupload). The movie about the process against the Pirate Bay shows that the vision of the South Park creators is more than fiction.

So sharing with a small group of people is good, but sharing with a lot of people is bad!! At least that is the message as I read it in the behavior of society with respect to internet organizations who facilitate mega-sharing.

Yet, in the past year, I read nothing but good words about teachers, institutions and foundations who facilitate the free mass sharing of knowledge and education. Of course there are discussions on the motives and the pedagogical models, c- versus x-, definitions of free, gratis versus available and so on. Yet there is a consensus to the fact that free education perhaps not will change higher education, but at least will raise the quality with decreasing costs. The newest hype being Moocs because massive is good adn efficient. So in education Sharing is good, Big Sharing is better!

Why does society feels that big sharing in some ways is bad, whereas it is desirable in other situations? Could it be that developing (good) education does not require investments; perhaps the fact that Moocs build on existing courses and that the ‘putting online’ does require such small sums that these small sums disappear in the larger budgets of universities? Yet 55 % of the Mooc-teaching professors indicate that these activities significantly competes with other activities.

Another explanation can be that the suppliers of the Moocs are different from the owners of education; as I described elsewhere the motives of individuals to participate in OER can be different from those of the institutions involved. So a professor can offer a Mooc because he thinks that his materials are not worth anything elsewhere, or for reputational reasons; organizations often participate because of the additional subsidies, marketing reasons or as part of their corporate governance.

Partly this is recognizable, offering a successful Mooc is good for your professional reputation. Yet, most Moocs contain specially for the Mooc developed materials, no rerun of old presentations and recorded colleges. The participating institutions put a lot of effort in the presentation of the Moocs, not only because of marketing reasons. There are a lot of ideas of potential future business models including providing additional services, selling programs for in company trainings and selling the information about the Mooc-participants. So, the Mooc institutions resemble modern day pop groups who offer (part of) their songs for free at the internet because they decided that their earning potentials are in other areas as life performances or fan goods. the same sense, publications in the form of double blind peer reviewed articles, published in closed journals are seen as of a greater academic value than blogs, columns or contributions to free journals. Also, in this sense free is a disqualification, synonym to bad quality. Perhaps scientific publications have to undergo a disruptive shock, just like education.