Access, Sharing, and Innovation through Digitization and the Public Domain

Over at Darim Online‘s blog, Phillip Brodsky reflects on Apple’s release of the iPad and asks some leading questions concerning the future of the book with the “People of the Book”, similar to J.T. Waldman’s posts on JPS’ blog last June and July last year (2009). Considering e-readers and e-book formats, Brodsky asks,

  • How might the Jewish community increase Jewish literacy as more religious and educational resources become digitized in e-formats, and thus become more easily disseminated and accessed?
  • Will prayer become more individualized as siddurs (prayer books) become available to everyone and can be carried without adding any extra bulk to a briefcase or book bag?
  • Will learning of Jewish texts attract new students as Torah and Talmud become available in new formats?
  • Will Jewish life become less expensive by saving on the purchase of books at religious schools and day schools?
  • How might synagogues and JCCs build relationships beyond their walls as sermons, newsletters and blog entries are sent to the palm of constituents’ hands?
  • Will all Jews need a handheld device, like new students at some universities, in order to fully participate in all the community has to offer?

How else might the Jewish world change as it enters the digital realm? What’s your organization or community doing to interact in the digital world?

Here at the Open Siddur Project, we see the platform we’re developing as, yes, a means for improved dissemination and access — especially for illuminating the historical diversity of Judaism’s spiritual traditions enshrined in Jewish liturgy. But this is not our raison d’etre. There are already many who are sharing texts of the siddur online. What is novel for us is the opportunity for individuals and groups to collaborate with one another: creating, remixing, and sharing art and text, each a seed-like contribution grown in the fecund mulch of our common cultural and spiritual heritage. Speaking for myself, the question of whether Jews will be davvening (praying) from e-books in the future is thus something of a distraction from what is much more interesting — how digitization of the ingredients of the siddur and collaborative publishing platforms like the Open Siddur might empower a sense of personal ownership in the craft and creation of useful and beautiful tools for engaging in spiritual relationships.

Need it be argued that print media will ever be made entirely obsolete for the Am haSefer, or People of the Book? We are, after all, a people who have enshrined in our laws the careful reproduction of our seminal texts by a capable scribe using quill and ink on animal skin parchment. I love Star Trek and hate paper goods derived from felled trees, so I’m hopeful that in the future we will at least be davvening from siddurim made from 100% recycled bamboo and hemp based sustainable paper goods. iPhone possessing Jews, serious about the fulfillment of their thrice daily t’fillah obligations, are already davvening from siddur apps. Yet, I caution against any premise that assumes digital media supplanting print media, in a sort of self-justifying march of technological progress.  Considering that conventions for sabbath observance are well fixed in the Jewish tradition, one could hardly expect print formats to disappear so long as there are Jews observing traditional sabbath laws. Saying this, I am certain that digitization will improve print resources used by Jews at any point during the week, let alone Internet or cloud-based resources — with one important caveat. We need to think seriously about how this material is licensed.

Efraim provided an insight into this issue with his economic argument for free primary data. I’d like to add to what Efraim and I began to advocate publicly on the Jewish Tech list, here in a criticism of Bar Ilan’s Responsa Project’s licensing of newly digitized historic works that are otherwise free and in the Public Domain.

The question of what formats improve access and dissemination is pressing. As cultural workers we should be interested in making access as inexpensive as possible to the source texts of Jewish culture. If we’re serious about this we will be mindful to use open standards and free culture licensing that allows others to build on top of and improve our work.

Digitization and networks provide the foundation for easy dissemination of cultural works. So much of the legacy of our cultural inheritance is already in the Public Domain, and thus, free, but bottled up in print media. The tragedy is that in the conversion from print to digital media, cultural workers are using closed standards and terms-of-use agreements which limit access to other cultural innovators. It is a real travesty when amazing and ambitious projects assume ownership of our common cultural heritage through onerous terms-of-use agreements. (See for example, Bar-Ilan’s Responsa Project or Davka Corp’s license for using public domain texts they’ve digitized).

Cultures, including our own, breathe creativity and exhale innovation. We rely on the creative works bequeathed to us by earlier generations to remain rooted in our cultural identity. Synagogue members and kids in day schools, summer camps, youth orgs, and creative Jews working on their own can all benefit from our educational, cultural, and spiritual institutions cooperating with one another in sharing the bounty of our cultural heritage. As Jews, are we not all collaborating on a grand project of Torah learning, spiritual improvement, and tikkun olam? It’s time our cultural licensing choices reflect these profound intentions.

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