Freedom is not Free

Software Freedom that is.  I follow the Octave mailing list (Octave is an open source Matlab work-alike), and there was a recent post about the freedom (or lack of it) in the newest offerings of the Stanford online courses that I thought would be of interest to Dayton Diode (recall, we did their AI course last fall).  Here is the relevant part:
> For those interested, it is possible to register for the course here:
> I plan to take the course and I hope to see Jordi there again!

I'm quite flattered to receive a personal invitation, and I was about
to accept it, but I came across this:

which appears to be required for signing up to it. This is new. The
machine learning course did not have such extensive legalese.

I cannot in good conscience agree to this. It is asking me to agree to
not copy the course materials, but this is something that would be
very beneficial to other students, for example, setting up a torrent
of the course materials for sharing once the course is done. It is
asking me to not share my code, and makes no provisions for deciding
when sharing my code is appropriate. It says I can't make derivative
works, such as notes from the course that may also help my fellow
students. It repeatedly refers to the annoying meaningless term
"intellectual property".

If they want to make free education, they should make it free. This is
bait-and-switch. "Free," but not free to copy it. "Free" but not free
to share it. "Free" but not free to modify it.

I urge you to not sign up for the course unless they change their
provisions. Who ever heard of a professor telling you to not create
derivative copies of their work, such as what your course notes might
reasonably be? Who let the lawyers into the classroom?  
This problem the folks at Stanford are having with providing a truly Free online educational experience reminded me of some of the tribulations the folks at the University of Washington Open3DP project recently faced.  Open3DP is an open research community focused on recipes, and designs, and methods for all sorts of additive fabrication techniques and technologies.  Unfortunately, their University's "Center for Commercialization" made sweeping changes to how staff at UW could collaborate or consult with outside persons.  This seems to be a similar ham-fisted attempt to squeeze small drops of blood out of intellectual property turnips as the kreeping Stanford legalese.  Luckily, through the extensive efforts of the professors involved, the Open3DP folks were able to continue their work under CC-BY-SA license arrangements.  This provides the Free as in Freedom protections we've all come to know and love with our open source software, and increasingly enjoy with our open source hardware. 

I will not be participating in any more Stanford online courses until they change the terms as Jordi suggests in his email to the Octave list, and as the Open3DP team has successfully negotiated for their work.  Vigilance against the "bait and switch" is the price we pay to keep enjoying Freedom in our *ware.


  1. Josh, this is a good point. Thanks for sharing the story. I hope Stanford makes the appropriate changes soon.

  2. Replies
    1. Yup, and there will be more where that came from.

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    I was excited about udacity after Thrun's AI course too...