UNESCO should be encouraged by the United States government and others to publish all of its reports on the Internet and to place them in the public domain.
It has established important precedents making open source software and other products available free. Some reports are available on the web. However, currently, UNESCO places many reports under copyright protection. I recently sought to use one of its reports on the history of UNESCO on electronic reserve for a class I was teaching, and was told that even in that case I had to submit a formal request. The publication in question, I am told, will be made available on the Internet in January, more than a year after its publication in paper form.
There are different theories as to why publications should be protected by copyright. Some hold that the monopoly on the sale of copies of a publication encourages authors. Others hold that copyright protection recognizes the natural rights of authors. Presumably, UNESCO does not need incentives to publish, since it is funded by its member states to do so, and since authors of UNESCO reports typically do not expect royalties for their efforts. Equally, it is hard to see why a bureaucratic organization would have natural rights to benefit from the creative efforts of others.
UNESCO has an important mandate to help the poor and to help poor countries. Not only does it charge for its reports, but it charges a lot for them. The majority of the world's people can not and do not have access to UNESCO reports as a result of its publications policies.
The U.S. National Academy Press has set some precedents that UNESCO might consider. It makes its reports available to all online in a format that allows them to be read page by page. They are available to be downloaded without charge from the Internet in PDF format for readers in developing nations. The Press does sell paper copies of its reports, charging enough to cover the printing and mailing costs. It has discovered that it has actually increased sales of paper copies by making the content available without charge on the World Wide Web.
The member states that provide the vast majority of UNESCO's budget are all donors of foreign assistance. They should encourage UNESCO to run the risk of forgoing whatever small income it may generate from the sale of copyrighted publications in order to make the products of UNESCO's work more available and accessible in developing nations, as well as to their own populations.
(This editorial represents the opinion only of its author.)