Last week or perhaps the week before, I saw a number of conservative blogs correctly dinging the University of California system for agreeing to some kind of union demand that the union get veto power over the development of online learning tools that could lead to job losses among instructors. Interestingly, though, use of the political process to stymie potentially useful public sector inovation is not just for labor unions! Amy Laitinen notes that the draft legislation for the Department of Labor appropriations bill has smuggled in a provision ensuring that “no funds may be used” by the Department of Labor to create digital open educational resources for job training purposes unless the Secretary of Labor can certify that such products won’t compete with any currently existing resources.
Textbook publishers, basically, don’t want the competition. And they’re right to fear it. In the zero marginal cost distribution world of digital publishing, the dominant strategy is free distribution by nonprofits supported by government or philanthropic grants. In many sub-sectors, the case for a public interest in developing content will be sufficiently weak that commerce should still win out (the government, in other words, isn’t going to fund the development of new “Two And A Half Men” episodes) but in fields like education where the public interest case is strong, commercial enterprises are very likely to lose out. Unless, of course, they can win enough lobbying battles.