Jessie, thanks for pointing us to the article.
I think I became confused while reading it.
Downes says that the GPL software license prevents commercial use of software which has the General Public License. My understanding is that the license only prohibits redistribution under a different license. It does not prohibit a company from making money by offering support for the use of the modified and redistributed software, for example. Red Hat and Canonical are two companies built upon distributing (freely) GPL software. They offer commercial support, training, troubleshooting, etc. so that business users can rely on the GPL software. Neither company claims "ownership" of the software. Red Hat is apparently about to have a billion dollars of company value, benefitting from GPL software.
Is Downes is advocating a learning system which requires all participants to offer everything, including support for free?
By that logic, school teaching and the whole infrastructure of education should be an entirely volunteer effort. It was true that access to education was jealously guarded in our past. Two examples: Guilds didn't want their skills taught to just anybody. Gutenberg's printing press broke the strangle-hold on knowledge (dangerous for the masses) held by church hierarchy.
Downes suggests that the four freedoms from Richard Stallman need an extra freedom, that of access (to the program). What confused me there was the implication that there were not a multitude of access points to the software. If you cannot get it from one software distribution, you can get it from hundreds of other channels, even from a friend. If someone sells GPL software, they are not the sole source for it. It is illegal to make important modifications to GPL software and claim that the new version is proprietary. Get it here or don't get it at all. Downes then segues into the world of OER by suggesting that we are fighting to unrestrict the stuff of education by breaking the access limitations currently placed on it.
Knowledge is not generally locked down these days. Students are encouraged to buy as many textbooks and recommended readings as they or parents can afford. What is locked is the expression. OER, in my opinion, seeks to break the expression limits by encouraging licensing that unlocks the expressions of knowledge. Unlocked, the knowledge is free of increasingly restrictive copyright licensing. Educators, using OER, can target particular populations of learners who have been unable to use the standard "commercial/copyrighted" materials, whether because they were too expensive or written in an inappropriate language or level.
No university or college has exclusive control of any body of knowledge. What is exclusive is the perception that a Harvard degree implies a more effective learning experience for the graduate, as opposed to a degree from Podunk U. The students who learned world literature from each university may even have used the same textbooks. Nonetheless, graduates from Harvard seem to get higher prestige in the job lines.
OER needs to be trusted. That is the thing that "reputation" provides. If we trust the chain of sources, then the OER components combined by a particular teacher, school, district, etc. will be respected. A school will remain on the accreditation list if its students get high quality access to knowledge...even if the school paid the staff to create targetted OER instead of relying on textbooks written with the big textbook markets like Texas or California in mind.
I think I get his idea that letting somebody sell a copy of OER is bad, but he also says, "So even if theoretically it is the case that there could be free copies of Beowulf hanging around, the commercial publishers of Beowulf the $4.95 version have all kinds of ways of making sure you just can’t get at it."
For what it's worth, I just checked Gutenberg.org for Beowulf. There it was in four releases. The primary release had been downloaded 10,949 times. I'm willing to bet that the $4.95 copy has sold many more copies because most people will think it is easier to pick up the book at a book store than to buy an ebook reader and then download the epub version from Project Gutenberg. I didn't have any trouble from the publisher.
If (pretending I'm a world lit teacher) I really only wanted to target selections from the text, I could feel entirely safe downloading the text file version and extracting the parts I wanted my students to use, probably formatting the text in a word processor and making paper copies to hand out. If I were even more enthusiastic, I'd mix in questions, reading recommendations, citations,etc. which would make the extracted Beowulf text targetted to the students in my class. The existence of the publisher's $4.95 copy doesn't impede me at all.
Barnes and Noble offers me several versions (translations?) for my Nook, too. They range from $.95 to $7.99. They also offer some SparkNotes versions.
Access isn't the issue for Beowulf. Access isn't the issue for most public domain text. The packaging for use by learners can be the issue. Parents are asked to pay their taxes to pay the teachers of K12 public schools and to pay for the copiers, ink and paper which allow teachers to distribute their OER of Beowulf.
If anything really stands in the way of OER, it is that educators aren't eager participants (yet). That can be the great value of the course we are enjoying.
The best elements of the article, for me, were parts of his third thesis: "...four easy steps: aggregate, remix, repurpose, feed forward." and "People are using more and more complex ‘words’ in this new language and we’re finding that we don’t need the publishers, we don’t even need the academics in many cases, to create these resources." Hoorah!