Category Archives: WhyOpen?

Why Open Twitter chat on CC licenses and “Why Open?”

On August 29, 2014, I helped facilitate a Twitter chat for a course I was co-designing and facilitating called Why Open? at P2PU (Peer 2 Peer University).

I had this Twitter chat archived at, but since it’s going away I’m moving the Tweets here to my blog instead. So imagine that this post was made in 2014!

I took out some tweets whose URLs went nowhere; apparently they have left Twitter or moved their accounts…

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Open and free, redux; Or, yes the words do matter

I am helping to facilitate a course right now at Peer 2 Peer University called “Why Open?” I did so last year as well, and managed to squeeze out a few blog posts during that course, which can be found in 2013 posts under the Why Open category on this blog. 

We’re in week 2 of the course, and one of the things we’ve asked participants to do is to read a few documents about the differences between “open” and “free.” I blogged a bit about this last year, but realized as I was doing the readings this year that there is still a lot I don’t quite get. And the best way for me to understand things that I find complicated is to write about them.

Free software and open content 

Last year I didn’t really bother with focusing on software to think about the differences between “open” and “free,” but this year I decided it was high time I get familiar with this issue. Here’s where I’m at in my understanding so far, from reading some of the things posted for week 2 of our course, plus also a couple of other articles, noted below.


GNU image from Pixabay.

The original in this dichotomy was free software, defined by four freedoms–as the Free Software Foundation puts it in their “free software definition”:

A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

A program is free software if it gives users adequately all of these freedoms. Otherwise, it is nonfree. While we can distinguish various nonfree distribution schemes in terms of how far they fall short of being free, we consider them all equally unethical.

There are, of course, similarities between these freedoms and those of the “open content definition” created by David Wiley, which now has 5 Rs:

The term “open content” describes any copyrightable work (traditionally excluding software, which is described by other terms like “open source”) that is licensed in a manner that provides users with free and perpetual permission to engage in the 5R activities:

  1. Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  2. Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

Both of these refer to what one can do with the work, the software, etc.–one should be able to revise it, reuse it, redistribute it, etc. Of course, I’m glossing over differences between these two definitions and lists of freedoms, but the basic idea is similar I think.

Free software and open source software

Finley argues in “Where the Free Software Movement Went Wrong (and How to Fix it)” that much of the software that fits under the definition of open source according to the Open Source Initiative would likely also be “free software” according to the four freedoms above. But honestly, looking at the four freedoms above and this definition of OSS, I’m having a hard time seeing exactly where they differ. I think that freedom 0 for FS is not really in the OSS definition, for one thing. And freedom 3, redistribution, is turned into the freedom to redistribute copies as part of an aggregation of software programs in the OSS definition. So there are practical differences between the two (this short article explains briefly how FS is always OSS, but not vice versa).

Tux2, by Larry Ewing, on Wikimedia Commons.

Tux2, by Larry Ewing, on Wikimedia Commons.

The Open Source Initiative’s FAQs on the difference between free software and open source software isn’t terribly helpful in trying to understand the differences. It states that the definitions of FS and OSS use different language, but ultimately get to the same place. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.

Stallman says, in “Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software”, that there is a big difference in values and purposes. Those who support “free software” are motivated by and focus on the freedom of the user/developer to do what they will with the software. While proponents of “open source software,” Stallman argues, aren’t so concerned about such freedoms and are instead interested in the pragmatic benefits that can be had through using open source software–better programs, easier ability to gather data, etc. And as a result, the OSS people aren’t worried if some of the four freedoms get curtailed, such as through “Tivoization”.

According to Morozov, in “The Meme Hustler“, Free Software (and its proponent, Richard Stallman) focused on the freedoms of the user of software–their ability to use it on various machines, to change the code, to redistribute it, etc. Morozov claims that Open Source Software, and its proponent Tim O’Reilly, focused on the freedom of developers:

O’Reilly cared for only one type of freedom: the freedom of developers to distribute software on whatever terms they fancied. This was the freedom of the producer, the Randian entrepreneur, who must be left to innovate, undisturbed by laws and ethics. The most important freedom, as O’Reilly put it in a 2001 exchange with Stallman, is that which protects “my choice as a creator to give, or not to give, the fruits of my work to you, as a ‘user’ of that work, and for you, as a user, to accept or reject the terms I place on that gift.”

“Freedom” here means being free to develop the software I want, how I want to, and letting you choose whether you want to accept my terms or go shopping for something else. This is the freedom of the free market, perhaps, with all the common arguments about improved productivity, efficiency, innovation, etc. that come along with that view of freedom (which may not actually be accurate, but that’s a different issue).

The words

One thing that is particularly interesting to me in all this is that there is a great deal of emphasis given to the particular word chosen. Some say the OSS supporters wanted to distance themselves from the ideology of the FS movement because the latter was not attractive to businesses (e.g., see Wikipedia on the history of free and open source software). “Free” could sound too much like “gratis” (no cost), “freeware”–which I imagine not too many for-profit businesses are going to want to emphasize. And if you’re not concerned about user freedoms, why focus on the word “free” anyway?

Enter “open,” which Morozov discusses fairly extensively in “The Meme Hustler.” He notes the ambiguity of the word: “Few words in the English language pack as much ambiguity and sexiness as ‘open.'” Morozov points out that the word “open” is similar to the word “law” in that both can mean so many different things: “from scientific ‘laws’ to moral ‘laws’ to ‘laws’ of the market to administrative ‘laws,’ the same word captures many different social relations.” This seems right to me (well, at least, that “open” is ambiguous; not sure about it being sexy); the fact that so many people and projects and organizations and businesses can claim to be “open” while doing very different things attests to that. When you consider all the various kinds of things claimed to have an “open” version (a sample list can be found in section 4 of the “openness” wiki entry from Peer 2 Peer Foundation), you might wonder, as I do, what holds them all together. 

So the “open” in OSS can mean that code is available to view/study/revise, and also that software creation should be left to the “open” market without too many barriers on what one must allow users to do. You do not have to give users freedoms besides freedom of choice of which platform/app they want to use, on the terms offered by the providers.

All of this is making me wonder if I don’t like the word “free” better than open, given the sort of thing Stallman was after. But at the same time, of course, “free” is too ambiguous as well. Too often it sounds like no- or low-cost, which doesn’t capture the kinds of freedoms listed in the bullet points of both the FS definition and the open content definition at the beginning of this post.

I can see why some people, such as Chris Sakkas of Living Libre, have decided to try to use a different word–he uses “libre,” which he defines as follows (under “understanding libre” on the Living Libre page):

Describes a work that can be shared and adapted without limitations, though with conditions

A libre work can be shared and adapted by anyone in the world.

When the creator places their work under a libre licence, they give permission for everyone now and in the future to share and adapt their work. This permission, once given, cannot be withdrawn.

This permission is unlimited. You can share and adapt their work no matter who you are or how you are sharing it. You can sell it, print it out, put it on a file-sharing network, and so on.

This permission is conditional. When adapting their work, you have to obey certain conditions. The most popular is attribution: if you share or adapt a work, you have to give credit to the original creator. Another is a copyleft restriction. If you adapt a copyleft work, you must place your adaptation under the same copyleft licence.


Questions I’m left with

Is coming up with a new word the way to go? If “open” is ambiguous, how will a new word that most are not familiar with not also end up meaning many different things, since it will be hard to come to an agreement on a single definition?

Or, does it matter if “open” is so ambiguous? Wouldn’t we just be talking past one another if we mean different things with the same word? Doesn’t having so many meanings to the word invite people and organizations to claim they are “open” when what they are doing bears not a whole lot of resemblance to what many would call “open” activities?

Is there anything that ties all “open” things together so as to justify using the same word for them?


What do you think?


“Why Open?” course at P2PU is back, August 2014

Last year I was part of a team that ran a course at P2PU called “Why Open?”, in which we discussed the various meanings of openness, engaged in some open practices, and talked about potential benefits and drawbacks/obstacles to openness.

We’re running it again starting August 10, and registration is open now!

You can see the course itself at

Or read a blog post summarizing it at the School of Open blog.

Last year I learned a lot from participants, and expect to do so again this year!

A troubling result from publishing open access articles with CC-BY

For week four of the Why Open? course, we are looking at potential benefits of openness, as well as potential problems with it. There are many, many interesting stories and case studies listed on that part of the course, and I’m still working through looking at them (I’m interested in them all!).

For this post, I decided to add in another story that has recently come to my attention, and that hits home for me as an academic.

Rosie Redfield, Professor in the department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia, recently blogged about an issue that a colleague had experienced with an open access publication: after publishing in an open access journal (PLOS One), which puts a CC-BY (Creative Commons Attribution) license on published articles, she discovered that her research paper had been included in a collection of papers published by Apple Academic Press, for which the publisher was charging over $100 Canadian.

CC-BY logo, downloaded from the Creative Commons downloads page

Now, this may not seem so bad, because, after all, the CC-BY license allows this. It allows others to do anything they want with one’s work, so long as one is cited as the original author. So it would seem not to be the case that the publisher is doing anything wrong (that’s what I thought at first), and what’s really at issue here is authors not knowing that this sort of thing could happen. Thus it would seem that education about what CC-BY allows is all that is really needed (that’s also what I thought at first).

And even if the publisher is charging a lot of money for a book with open access articles in it, those articles still remain open access to be viewed by anyone, so no harm done, right?

Wrong. As I started reading more of Redfield’s posts on this issue, and when I read the results of a survey she did of researchers, I started to see some of the complications of the situation. Then when I met with her in person last week, I came to realize the nuances of what is happening and the potential problems that can result, both for researchers and for the public.

What’s the problem?

This is not simply a matter of authors being upset that someone else is making money off of their work (though as the survey results show, some do have that concern)–there are other problems as well. These are not listed in any particular order, but rather the order in which they’re coming to mind for me.

1. One might argue, as some of the authors in the survey did, that a publisher is making a profit off an open access work becomes more of a concern when authors have to pay a fee to publish in many open access journals (or to publish an article as open access in non-open access journals). Here’s a pretty thorough list of scholarly journal publishers and their “article processing charges” (APC’s). I was once asked if I wanted to pay over $2000 to have a 2-3 page book review published as open access in an otherwise closed journal. I decided the book review just wasn’t that good. 

The point is, it’s not just that some people are upset that others are making money off their work, but rather that they had to pay to publish their work open access, and they did this because they wanted the work available for others to view for free. Well, of course, it isn’t always individuals paying these APC’s–people can use grants to do so, and/or they can get funding to do so from their institution, just to name a couple of other sources of the money.

A rebuttal could be: well, the articles are still available to view for free, on the journal’s website, and likely other places around the web as well. This brings up the next problem.


2. Just because the articles are available for free elsewhere doesn’t mean the people who see the book in which they’ve been republished, and which is selling for a good chunk of money, are able to find that out easily. The problem with this particular book that Redfield talks about in her blog is that there was no indication at all that these were open access articles, and that they are available for free on the web. Of course not–that would mean no one would buy the book. Several authors in Redfield’s survey mention that they think such books should have to list the original source of the publication.

So people looking for scientific research may see the book and think they need to buy it to get access to the research. I find this quite troubling, as for me, the point of open access publishing is to allow people access to research without having to pay. That people are ending up getting duped into paying is a problem, in my view.

And it’s not just individuals, libraries may be buying such books (and using public funds to do so), as suggested in a comment on one of Redfield’s blog posts on this issue (the comment also mentions some other important downsides as well). When I met with her, Redfield told me she had spoken to a librarian at the University of British Columbia libraries, who said that they had about 50 of Apple Academic Press’s titles. Redfield was in the process of getting these titles to find out whether any of them are republications of open access articles.

Redfield notes in a blog post that actually, according to the terms of PLOS One, anyone who redistributes an article for that journal must also “make clear the license terms under which the work was published.”  The same is true for the license terms of BioMed Central. Upon looking into the legal code of the CC-BY 3.0 unported license, it seems to me that this sort of thing is required by the CC-BY license itself. It says, in section 4(a), here, that “You must include a copy of, or the Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) for, this License with every copy of the Work You Distribute or Publicly Perform.” I had forgotten this, but of course I include a link to the CC license for any CC-licensed image I use on this blog, for example, precisely for that reason.

The PLOS One license terms also say that the redistribution of articles from PLOS journals must include citation not only of the author, but also of the original source. So do the Wiley Online Open terms (which allow you to publish an open-access article in an otherwise non-open access journal). And Taylor and Francis and Routledge Open too. I’m not going to do an exhaustive search of all open journals, or journals that allow open-access content, to see what their terms are. The point is that such terms do exist, and at least in the case where the article from PLOS One was republished without citing the original source and license, such terms were violated.


3. The articles in the book Redfield talks about were edited to some degree from how they appeared in the original publications (I’m not sure how much, exactly). Of course, the CC-BY license allows others to “adapt” the work, so this is not a problem in itself. The problem comes in when one thinks about what might be possible, such as book editors making fairly significant changes to an article that, even by accident, end up making the argument weaker or suggest claims that the author would not have made him/herself.

Then, what comes into the picture is potential harm for the author, from people thinking they’ve said things they haven’t, and wouldn’t, say (if those things put the author in a bad light because they make the argument worse, or the data analysis worse, etc.). A number of the authors in Redfield’s survey said they would be worried about possible misrepresentation of the authors’ interpretations of results. Other authors worried that others might think they had self-plagiarized–published the same thing twice, without citing their earlier publication.

It might seem on the surface that the CC-BY license allows such things to happen, but as Redfield points out in one of her blog posts, CC-BY (and all CC licenses that have “attribution” as one of their requirements) have a “no endorsement” clause: those who use a work licensed CC-BY and alter it in some way, must not indicate that the original author endorses the revision of the work. The legal code of the CC-BY license makes this even clearer–see section 4(b)(iv) here. 

Since the publisher of the work Redfield discusses listed the authors as “contributors,” and did not state that the articles had been previously published elsewhere and edited for publication in the book, one could make the case that the way they’ve presented the articles suggests “endorsement” by the authors. Redfield argues for this point here.

But since the authors in this case were not told that their articles were going to be published in the book, they did not have a chance to give an endorsement or not. Nor does CC-BY require that original creators of works with a CC-BY license be informed that their works are being reused and adapted.


What should be done?

My first thought, upon seeing the first one or two of Redfield’s blog posts, was that this problem could be solved by simply educating authors about the various CC licenses, and about what is allowed under CC-BY, so they can decide whether they want to use CC-BY or some other license. I thought that those who wanted to avoid the problems noted above could choose a different license, like perhaps CC-BY-SA (share-alike)–which would require that any use of the work have an equivalent license on it, possibly reducing incentives to republish collections of such works–or CC-BY-ND (no derivatives)–which would not allow anything to be changed. There are several problems with this response.


1. It may not be the case that authors have a choice of licenses when publishing in an open access journal, or when publishing an open access article in an otherwise non-open access journal. PLOS One, for example, does not give you a choice–you have to use CC-BY or not publish there. So do BioMedCentral and PeerJ and  Sage Open. Some publishers do allow a choice, such as Wiley (you can choose a license for your open access article in an otherwise non-open access journal), and Taylor and Francis.

But those who are worried about reuse of CC-BY articles might just choose not to publish in the OA journals that require CC-BY (this does not apply to researchers who are mandated to publish open access as CC-BY, of course). Unless some other things change. Like possibly the following.


2. As noted above, the republishing of open access articles without citing the original publications and licenses under which they were published may be in violation of the license terms of the original articles. If so, then it seems logical that legal action should be taken against the publishers who violate those terms. This is what Redfield suggests in a blog post.

I agree, but who should take such legal action? It’s too much to ask for individual authors to take legal action, unless they can find legal counsel who will take on the case without charging anything, or very much. Who among us has enough money to pay attorneys and other fees to sue a publisher?

Redfield suggests perhaps the journal publishers should take on the duty of suing such book publishers, which seems to me to make sense because the book publishers are violating the terms of the journal publishers’ own licenses. But this raises other issues, as discussed in the comments to that post (authors are the ones with legal standing to sue because they hold copyright, journals may have to raise article processing fees to cover such activities).

One might also ask: what motivation do journals have to go after publishers who are redistributing content that the journal is not making money from each time it is accessed anyway? They have made money through other means than subscriptions or fee for access, so would they be motivated to try to stop such republication? Perhaps, if enough authors shy away from publishing open access articles because of fears of this sort of thing happening.



The bigger point here is the following. Even if you don’t think this is a big deal (and many don’t, as evidenced by comments on Redfield’s blog posts about this issue), it appears that there are a good number of authors who do, and who may then choose not to publish in open access journals because of it. This is ignoring the point, of course, that many researchers are now being mandated to do so; there are still quite a few who are not…though this may change soon.

Even if a journal allows a choice of licenses, authors may wonder if, were it to be the case that the license was violated, they or someone else would be able to take action to do something about it. And if no one is doing anything about it, then what’s to stop this sort of thing from spreading further, if it’s lucrative? 

Whether it is a profit-making business, whether significant numbers of individuals and libraries are buying such books, remains to be seen. And the more that authors are required to publish open access works, the more this sort of thing might become lucrative, if it isn’t already. But I think this is an issue worth paying attention to and trying to figure out what can and should be done about the violation of open access licenses in open access journals, even if one doesn’t think that has happened in this particular case.

Open and free

For week two of the Why Open? course I’m helping to facilitate, one of the things we asked participants to read and think about is similarities and differences between “open” and “free,” as these terms are currently used in discussions about openness. Of course, this just adds to the complexity, for now we have two terms that are used differently by different communities, and whose meanings are disputed.

One problem with the word “free” is that it can have many meanings (well, same problem with “open,” of course). Among them, there is “free” in the sense of no cost, or “gratis,” versus free in the sense of freedom, or “libre.”


Gratis with or without libre

Wifi Gratis, flickr photo shared by Daniel Lobo, licensed CC-BY.

An example of something that is “open” mostly in the sense of “gratis” is at least some ways of thinking of open access publishing of research articles and books. Most of what one hears about in terms of fighting for open access for scholarly research has to do with being able to read, download, and distribute articles and books without cost–hence the emphasis on “access.” Here’s a quick and clear overview of what “open access” means, that focuses only on access.

But there are also arguments for making open access works at least somewhat libre, in the sense of allowing derivatives to be made. See, for example, the Bethesda and Berlin statements on what counts as open access works (I found these from this overview of open access by Peter Suber). An editorial in PLoS Biology by Catriona J. MacCallum entitled “When is Open Access Not Open Access?” delineates between free access to scholarly articles (without cost) and open access (derivatives are allowed). Why would allowing derivative works be important for scholarly articles? At least to allow unrestricted translation into other languages without gaining permission, but also things like using diagrams and figures in other works.

There is also the “How open is it?” guide put out by SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), PLoS (Public Library of Science) and OASPA (Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association), which describes a spectrum of open access for research in terms of reading rights, reuse rights, copyright, authors’ posting rights, and more. This combines gratis (free access to read) with some elements of libre (such as posting on other sites besides the journals’ website, allowing derivative works). So proponents of open access for research need not be focused on gratis only.

Libre with or without gratis

“Libre” often denotes an ability to reuse, modify, remix things: the four R’s in the definition of open content by David Wiley, for example, might count as a description of “libre.” Chris Sakkas describes a “libre” work as one that can be shared and adapted by anyone in the world, possibly subject to some limitations, such as attribution of the original source and copyleft, or share-alike provisions. The Free Software Foundation defines free software as having four freedoms that fit “libre” rather than “gratis” (note that the four freedoms of the FSF and of Wiley’s “open content” are very similar; it’s just that Wiley makes a separate category for “remix,” or putting content together with other content to make something new, and the FSF separates distribution of the original and of revised versions into two categories). The definition of free cultural works by is very similar to the FSF’s definition of free software, but applied to works other than software.

In these discussions of “libre,” there is no requirement that works be free as in “no cost.” Indeed, the FSF definition of free software explicitly states that free software must be allowed to be revised and the original and revision distributed, with or without charging a fee for such. The FSF has a page explicitly explaining that and why it’s okay to sell free software, and also explaining that software given away without cost may or may not be “free software,” depending on what freedoms users have once they have it. So “libre,” at least in some discussions of it, seems to have little to do with “gratis.”

Which is interesting, because in our survey of meanings of open for this course, quite a few people mentioned that openness has to do in part with accessibility without barriers, including cost barriers. And it seems to me that the ability to reuse, revise, redistribute something depends fundamentally on the ability to access it in the first place, so if something is libre but not gratis it may allow for quite a bit of freedom, but not for everyone (though, of course, the definition of free software says it must allow users to distribute the original or derivatives, gratis or for a cost, so gratis versions may be available…or not).  And even going beyond cost, there are of course other kinds of access barriers, such as technological ones, that make the “libre” freedoms unusable by some.

Some definitions of “free” and “open” and how they approach access

The FSF does address the issue of access to some degree in its definition of free software, by pointing out that

In order for freedoms 1 and 3 (the freedom to make changes and the freedom to publish the changed versions) to be meaningful, you must have access to the source code of the program. Therefore, accessibility of source code is a necessary condition for free software. Obfuscated “source code” is not real source code and does not count as source code.

So even if a software program can be sold, the source code (if it is to count as free software) must be accessible. It’s not clear from the definition of free software page whether or not the source code must be accessible as in gratis, or if it can be accessible for a cost. I had to go searching a bit to find out. The last section of the article on why it’s okay to sell free software from the FSF says that nevertheless, there should be a limit on how much one can charge for the source code, or else one could say the source code is available in theory, but practically it may not be. So the GNU General Public License does include restrictions on how you can provide the source code (see section 6). This section of the GNU GPL FAQs was helpful too. From these documents I think the situation is this: for free software, at least for the GNU GPL license, you have to make the source code available to those to whom you distribute the software. So if they pay for the software, they get a copy of the source code along with that, for no extra cost. If you distribute it without cost, then you must also distribute the source code for no cost. So let’s say one person pays for a copy of the software and gets the source code. If they then distribute it for free on a network, they must also provide the source code in one of several possible ways, for free. So either way, the source code must be made available, without (extra) cost, to people who have a copy of the software.

This means that the four freedoms of free software may or may not be available without cost, because the source code may or may not be available without cost–that is, if I’m understanding all this correctly. Of course even if the source code costs nothing, some of the freedoms are still only available to some people–to those who can actually understand and edit the source code–but there will likely always be some restrictions in place in terms of use and adaption of “free” or “open” works.

The definition of free cultural works also includes something similar to availability of source code, for other kinds of works:

Availability of source data: Where a final work has been obtained through the compilation or processing of a source file or multiple source files, all underlying source data should be available alongside the work itself under the same conditions. This can be the score of a musical composition, the models used in a 3D scene, the data of a scientific publication, the source code of a computer application, or any other such information.

So according to the definition of free cultural works,  the sources used to create a free work must themselves be free/libre in the same way as the works themselves are required to be. There isn’t much clarity here on how this should work (unlike for free software and the GNU GPL license), but perhaps it means that works can be sold but still be free as in libre, and the source files and data must be given to the recipient along with the final work (similar to source code for software, above). So whether you pay for it or can access it without cost, you must have access to the source data as well (for an extra price okay? included in the price of the original work?).

Here, too, the question about accessibility due to price could be mitigated by the fact that free cultural works (like free software) can be distributed by anyone who has a copy, to anyone else, with or without charging a fee. So it’s possible that there will be a copy available somewhere that can be accessed without cost. Or maybe not.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has a definition of open data and open content that includes a focus on access and price:

The work shall be available as a whole and at no more than a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably downloading via the Internet without charge. The work must also be available in a convenient and modifiable form.

While not quite gratis, this allows for distribution of works to recoup (reasonable) costs for that distribution, which could make sense in the case of physical copies such as on paper or on digital media like a thumb drive. It does raise the question whether it makes sense to charge people who download from the internet a fee for hosting information on a site (hosting data on a server does cost some money!).

A theoretical tension

Interestingly, this raises a bit of a potential paradox, as can be seen from this part of the Open Knowledge definition of open content:

The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the work either on its own or as part of a package made from works from many different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale or distribution.

The point here is that while a work that counts as open under this definition must not have a fee attached greater than a “reasonable reproduction cost,” that work must also permit users to sell the work for their own monetary gain.

I don’t have a problem with this provision, it’s just that it raises the issue that Stephen Downes has talked about quite a bit (see, e.g., here and here): views of openness that allow the user wide freedom to do whatever they wish with the open artifact can lead to that artifact being enclosed and no longer open (or free) in the sense of widely accessible. Downes argues here that we can think of freedom from the perspective of what the person who already has a work is free to do with it, and from the perspective of the person trying to access a work, and works that cost money may be free in the former but not the latter sense (because there may be quite a lot of people who can’t afford to access the work). 

Of course, the counter to that is that the original must remain open and low- or no-cost (and other copies can be distributed for free too), so there should be at least one available without cost. Whether that one can be effectively hidden in internet searches through Search Engine Optimization practices, however, is an important question–which Scott Leslie addresses with an example, here.

What I want to emphasize here is the theoretical tension going on: the wide freedom of those who possess and use a work or program to do with it as they will could (theoretically, at least, though the degree to which it has or could happen in practice is debated) lead to fewer people being able to access the work, and wide freedom to access could limit freedoms of the user/possessor to do with a work what they want (e.g., by not allowing works to be sold for a profit, or by requiring they be in formats accessible by many, among other things).

I understand that the free software and free cultural works and other views of “libre” attempt to strike a balance by requiring that works be allowed to be distributed freely, with or without cost, but this may not ensure wide accessibility (e.g., if few distribute for free or if free copies are buried in search results). And I understand that proponents of requiring only “non-commercial” uses of works (such as Downes) attempt to strike a balance by restricting user freedoms in favour of wider accessibility (since, for those without access, user freedoms are moot).

Which balance is best? Is there a better balance to be struck than the ones we’ve come up with so far? I do think this is a difficult issue, which I’ve wrestled with before, when talking about CC licenses in particular. So far I’ve decided in favour of the balance that focuses on user freedoms, but I’m curious what others think of this issue.

I wanted to include another section of this post, talking about the language: “free” vs “open”–what are the benefits/drawbacks to using one or the other of these terms? But it’s late and I’m tired, and so that will have to wait for another post.

Results of survey on meaning of “open”

Why Open Brainstorm, by Laila Le Guen, licensed CC-BY. This image was done by a participant in the Why Open? course, a brainstorm mixing her views on why openness is important with those gathered from the survey discussed in this post. Laila shared it on Twitter on the #whyopen tag.

As part of a Why Open? course I’m helping to facilitate, we sent out a survey to gather different people’s views of what they think “openness” means–we were hoping to get answers from people in various professions. As part of the course, we asked participants to respond to some of these definitions in the discussion area for week 1, at the bottom of this page. But my comments are going to be so long that I think they’ll be easier to read in a blog post! So I’ll post a link to this blog post in that discussion area.

We got 30 responses to the survey, which is quite a good number from something sent out for a couple of weeks on email lists, Twitter, and other social sites! You can see all the results of the survey in a couple of formats. Here you can see the answers to each question listed out under the question, and here is the spreadsheet where you can link question answers to the person who gave them (if they gave a name) and their profession.

There’s another, similar survey focused on teachers/faculty and what openness means in the context of research and teaching, here, done for another purpose. It also provides some interesting results, but I’ll focus here just on the survey we did.

I thought about trying to see if there were patterns amongst people with similar professions, but I’m not sure we have enough data to do that, really. There are quite a few different types of professions represented, so there aren’t that many people in each type of profession (except education and educational technology–there are a significant number of people in those fields).  So I decided to keep track of some common answers, and then comment on some of the uncommon ones that I hadn’t considered before or found interesting for some other reason.


Question on what people think “open” means, whether in general or in a particular field/practice/activity

Our first question was: What does “open” mean to you?

Common answers to the meaning of “open”

I did not do a super careful job of coding the answers, so others may come up with different numbers if they try to put answers together into similar categories! It was kind of a rough coding/categorization.

And I’m not attaching any great significance to these results–e.g., not suggesting that since these showed up quite often in our survey then it must be the case that most people who try to state their view of the meaning of “open” are going to have these in there. This was not at all a random sample. I include these just to give an idea of what one might often hear when people are talking about openness.

  • 17 of the 30 respondents said that open had to do with allowing things to be reused, revised, changed, remixed, and the like.
    • A number of people mentioned open licensing as a way to make this possible (I counted about 3-4)
  • 16 of the 30 said something about openness being related to accessibility, without barriers in the form of cost, bureaucratic hurdles, or other obstacles.
  • 13 said something about openness involving collaboration, ability for many people to participate in a practice or in creating a product.
    • E.g., government being open in part by allowing for public input, public decisionmaking in some aspects; students being involved in open education, being consulted in how courses go and being able to have their own goals, paths through courses.
    • A couple of people talked about institutions or practices being open to changing through feedback, and one noted that openness blurs the line between producers and consumers.
  • 8 people said it had to do with sharing work, products, activities or process–one said it was a different form of file transfer than that done legally when there’s copyright and pirating.
  • 8 people said something about transparency, or openness in communication, such as when governments are transparent about their processes, or that a practice is open if publicly documented.


 A couple of answers that were not common, but that I found particularly interesting

One person said that an important part of an open resource is that it makes clear that things are accessible, shareable, revisable, etc., and explains what those things mean in easy to understand terms (or links to a place that does so)–see dkernohan’s answer, here. Good point. Just because something is open and openly licensed for reuse and revision doesn’t mean people can easily find that information. I often see blogs that don’t clarify the license they have for their work, and without giving it an explicit license to the contrary, the default is copyright. If people want to share, they must be sure that a license and/or words stating so are prominent on their sites/artifacts.

One nice thing about Creative Commons licenses is that they have versions of the licenses that are in somewhat easy-to-read language (easier than the full legal code, anyway). So, for example, the CC-BY license that I use has a more “readable” version, with a link to the full legal version. Other licenses may have similar–I haven’t looked into many licenses.

I do think it’s important to not just say you’re using a license, but to link to it so people see the full terms, and if possible, to link to a version that explains it in somewhat clear language. And to make it prominent on your site. For those using CC licenses, this page is helpful for best practices in marking your work as CC-licensed.

A nice plugin I’m using for my blog, that you can use if you have a self-hosted WordPress blog (can’t add plugins on blogs, I think), is Open Attribute. It allows you to put a site-wide license on, as well as different license for different posts. There is also a web browser plugin called open attribute, that does something different–it puts an icon into your URL bar that allows you to easily cite information, images, videos from pages that have CC licenses (you can copy and paste in plain text or html).

 Another person said that openness has to do (in part) with a “hacker ethic” (see @wiltwhatman’s answer, here). Though this may not be what that person had it mind, to me, a “hacker ethic” means that things are open to change, to being remade. But it being an “ethic” means a bit more than that. To me, it means that the more things that are open to remaking, remixing, the more likely it is that more people may eventually move from passive consumers of information and knowledge to active makers and sharers themselves. It there are a lot of things open to changing, and inviting people to use and change them, then perhaps this could encourage those who didn’t participate in making things as much in the past to start doing so. Especially if it doing so is fairly easy.

For example, if an (open) educational resource like some slides from a presentation, or a digital animation that explains some process or concept is just available to reuse as is (so it’s open in that sense, but not in the sense of revision), then I can post it on a website for a course, or link to it, but I won’t be involved in adding or changing anything. And if most educational resources are like this, then I’ll be rather passive when dealing with things other people have made. But if there are a lot of OER’s that invite revision, remixing, then I may be inspired to change them so they fit my course better. And in this way I might make more things myself because while starting from scratch may be too much work, changing something someone else has created may not be. Again, depending on how easy it is to revise such things, and whether I have the right software knowledge, etc. It won’t be enough in itself to encourage more people to make things, but it might help.


Answers to why people participate in open culture, or why they think openness is valuable

We also asked people: “Why do you participate in open culture? Or, why do you think openness is important?”

Some common answers

  • 15 people said that openness is valuable because it allows for participation/collaboration, and that this is important for various reasons
    • e.g., 7 people said engaging in dialogue with others helps them work better in their fields, and create better things
    • a few people mentioned that collaborating is important because it helps build solidarity, altruism, teamworking skills
    • one pointed out that there are always more smart people outside your community/workplace than inside, so best to go outside these to share/discuss ideas
  • 7 people noted that openness can help create new and better knowledge, products; can help promote creativity and innovation
    • one said that we always build on the work of others when we create things, so the more work is closed off the less chance there is to build on it
    • one said that opening his/her work up may help to solve problems down the road that s/he isn’t even aware of it
    • a couple said that openness is helpful to bettering the world generally, solving common problems
  • 4 said openness can provide access to things that some people might not be able to afford otherwise, such as educational materials
  • Related to the above, 2 people mentioned that openness is part of promoting inclusivity, and one said that it spreads power and resources more widely
  • 4 talked about the value of transparency, that public institutions shouldn’t be able to hide what they’re doing, that it promotes accountability, publicizes and helps to prevent abuse


Some answers that weren’t common, but that I found particularly interesting

One person said, I want to share to increase the expectation of others to share too” (see Timothy Vollmer’s answer, here). Good point. I hadn’t thought of that consciously, but sure…if I am sharing some things I do, some people might find value in them and then decide that what they do could be valuable to others as well, and maybe they’ll be willing to share. If the norms in one’s field or activity are to not share, then few will do it. But it seems that if some people start sharing, others might begin to think perhaps it’s a good idea. I know if I benefit from something someone else has done, it

Another person asked an interesting question: “I share because I believe it to be a good thing. Is sharing innately open? Not so sure.Not so sure” (see Pat’s answer, here). I guess I just assumed sharing is open, but it probably depends on what is shared and how. And on what “sharing” means. Because if, let’s say, offering a free version of an app is “sharing,” but it’s not open to revision, then that’s not terribly open. And also if the free version is there mainly to get you to try it and then buy the paid version. That may not be what this person meant, though. I’m curious–can you think of ways in which sharing might not be “open”? Please respond in the comments, if you’d like!


Links to open projects/sites

We also asked in the survey if people wanted to provide us with links to a project or site that exemplifies their views of “open.” It’s best just to go to the survey results themselves to see these, because some have nice explanations attached! Some great resources there.

Thank you to those who took the time to fill out our survey!


[Why Open?] What does “open” mean?

I made this animated GIF using a mobile phone and GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program. 


For the next five weeks, I’m helping to facilitate an open online course at the School of Open called Why Open? The course starts today, and we’ve asked participants to start by writing a blog post on the following:

What do you think “openness” is? Focusing on your own field or context (if you wish), describe what it means to do work openly, or to make one’s activity or artifacts open. Alternatively, you could talk about what you think “openness” means generally, what sort of definition might fit all open activities or works.

I thought that after having read quite a few things about openness, and helping to put together this course, I’d have a clearer idea of what openness means. But instead, I recognize just how complicated the issues are surrounding openness, and so I have a hard time coming up with a clean, neat definition.

I could write a blog post that links to a bunch of resources on openness and see what they have to say, then respond to that, but that would be jumping the gun at this point. We’re starting off giving our own views, so let me try to put together some of my various thoughts about openness, as they stand at the moment (recognizing that things will change by the end of this course experience!).

I’ll be focusing on openness in my profession, higher education and research (I teach Philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver).

My earlier views on openness in education and research

A friend (Pat Lockley) recently did a survey of academics to find out their views of openness. The results, and a slideshow presentation on how he and a collaborator used these results, can be found in one of Pat’s blog posts. My response is #3 on this spreadsheet (I tried to copy and paste it here, but I don’t think I have permission to do that).

Summarizing that, my view on openness in the context of teaching and research, at least when I answered this survey, was:

  • One part of openness is allowing something to be freely viewed, such as open access research and publications–anyone can see these without having to pay for viewing. Putting up one’s teaching materials on a freely-accessible website would count here too.
  • But that’s only one small part of doing academic work openly; to be more “open,” one would make one’s materials and research not only available for free viewing, but also for use by others, and for revision–adding to, subtracting from, mixing with other things, etc. So, for example, I could not just put up a syllabus or lecture notes or teaching video for others to view, but would give these things a license that would allow for reuse, revision, remixing (e.g., a CC-BY license). The same could go for research articles–it would be nice if parts of these, such as tables, diagrams and graphs, could be reproduced in other places, altered and posted elsewhere, etc. But a license allowing such use is helpful, as copyright doesn’t allow it without getting express permission from the author.
  • Another important thing to think about is the format in which you’re posting your materials. For example, PDFs aren’t easily editable by most people, so putting things up in PDF form makes them freely available, but not easily accessible for revision and reuse. I don’t know much about video or audio formats, but it’s possible that some are better than others for this sort of thing as well.
  •  Courses are “open” not only if they are free to participate in (like MOOCs), but also if the materials are available for reuse, revision, repurposing. Some MOOCs don’t allow anyone to use their materials for other purposes. Here is a quote from Coursera’s Terms of Use, for example:

Permission to Use Materials

All content or other materials available on the Sites, including but not limited to code, images, text, layouts, arrangements, displays, illustrations, audio and video clips, HTML files and other content are the property of Coursera and/or its affiliates or licensors and are protected by copyright, patent and/or other proprietary intellectual property rights under the United States and foreign laws. In consideration for your agreement to the terms and conditions contained here, Coursera grants you a personal, non-exclusive, non-transferable license to access and use the Sites. You may download material from the Sites only for your own personal, non-commercial use. You may not otherwise copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives works of the material.

Udacity’s Terms of Use have a similar provision, as do those of FutureLearn. By contrast, the license on P2PU materials is CC-BY-SA.

Also in that survey I started trying to think about openness in education more broadly, and began to feel my way towards that by saying that we could open up education further if we didn’t just think of it in terms of formal institutions and courses. Learning happens in many different ways, every day, and if we could come up with some way to recognize and value that (rather than only giving credit to what people have learned at formal institutions), that might be a way to make education more “open.”

I think that’s a good thing to pursue, though I’m not yet sure how I’d fit it into a defintion of openness. Perhaps ensuring that education is more open in the sense of being more available/accessible to more people? If we restrict credit for learning to formal institutions, then only those who can get into and pay for those can get credit.

What I’d add now

 What I’ve focused on above are things like free and easily-available access/viewing, licensing so as to allow revision and reuse/reposting, and allowing many people to be able to take courses, as well as get credit for learning in more informal ways. That latter is like access to some degree, so so far: access, reuse, revision.

Now I’d also add something about transparency, mostly of process, but perhaps of other things as well. So in education, the process used to reach students’ marks should be transparent, for example.

I’m not sure if this fits “transparency,” exactly, but I’m trying to be more open about my processes of research, in the sense of blogging about research as I go along, from my first thoughts about research questions and possible methods, to finalized research projects, to results. I do this because it’s a good way to get feedback from others who are interested in similar things, and, since I’ll be taking notes anyway and they might be useful to others, why not put them up in public?

Similarly, I’ve started blogging in the past few years about my teaching (that’s why I started this blog in the first place)–talking about what I’m planning, what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and why. Again, I can get feedback from others, and my experiences can hopefully be useful to others as well.

I’m putting all of this sort of stuff under “transparency,” though perhaps there’s a better word for it.


So at this point, I’d say openness, at least in education and research, has to do with at least the following: free and easy access (including for reading/viewing/listening to works, as well as access in the sense of being able to attend courses or learn in other ways), ability to revise and reuse works created by others, and transparency (in the sense of letting others in on your process).

Now, I’m sure there are things I’ve left out here, and I’m also sure that this view will change. In addition, none of this is to say that these things are always beneficial, or that there are no potential problems associated with being open. We’ll discuss some of those later in the course!

I also want to point out that simply putting things online for free viewing and licensing them for revision and reuse doesn’t mean they are actually generally accessible. There are many people who do not have stable, fast internet access, and making materials available to them is not simply a matter of putting them on the internet. That’s an issue I haven’t looked into carefully enough. I too often think I’m being plenty open when I post things online and let others revise and reuse them. But it’s only a subset of people who can do so.


Let me know what you think…have I missed anything that you think is important about openness?

Hello, Why Open? course!

My name is Christina Hendricks, and I’m helping to facilitate this course at the School of Open called “Why Open?” in August, and I’m writing this post to introduce myself to the participants (and to get at least one post onto our shiny new blog hub we’re creating–will link to it when it’s ready).

A bit about me

I teach philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC (here’s my main website, and here’s my page). I also teach in an interdisciplinary program for first-year students in the Faculty of Arts called Arts One. This is a team-taught, full year course for which students get 18 credits: 6 each in English, History and Philosophy. I think Arts One is a fantastic liberal arts program, and I dearly love teaching in it. We’ve recently started putting some of our lectures, student blogs, and Tweets online at “Arts One Digital,” which can give you a good sense of the sort of things we read and discuss in the course. If you want to read a bit more about my work in Arts One, you could click the “Arts One” tag on the right menu.

My first foray into doing work openly was this blog, which I started four or five years ago, but I only recently began to really blog on a regular basis (in large part because I had time to do so during a sabbatical in 2012-2013!). Over the course of the past six months, I’ve gotten more and more interested in “openness.” How did that happen?

How I got here

While on sabbatical last year, I decided to investigate these MOOC things, these Massive, Open, Online Courses. I looked into some from the major providers like Coursera and others, but ended up deciding to really get involved with one that was organized and facilitated by volunteers, entirely on the open web called “ETMOOC” (Educational Technology and Media MOOC). That course was run similarly to the Why Open? course (though it was 10 weeks long, if I remember correctly): we had synchronous sessions, plus suggested activities and blog posts, plus Twitter chats each week. There was a blog hub where we could easily see each others’ blog posts, and we were encouraged to comment on each others’ work to get conversations going and start making connections amongst us.

We were already engaging in open learning, through writing public blog posts and public comments on them, engaging in Twitter updates and Twitter chats publicly, and participating in synchronous sessions that were open for anyone to join and view later.

Still, we had a specific section of that course called “The Open Movement,” and I found myself especially excited about such things. I began doing some research on my own into openness, and found the School of Open! I also found another online course, specifically on open education, from the Open University, which I participated in. If you happen to be interested, all my blog posts for that course are under the “h817open” tag on the menu at right.

I had seen on the School of Open’s site that there were a list of courses that were being developed, or courses that people had expressed interest in having, and a call for volunteers. The “Why Open?” course was one of them, so I volunteered to help with it, along with the other organizers/facilitators. And here we are!

How I participate in openness

Well, so far it’s mostly just this blog:

  • I have opened up my research by writing about it step by step, taking notes on research articles and giving my comments to those, thinking out loud about how I might design research projects and asking others for suggestions (which has been very helpful!)
  • I have opened up my teaching by writing about planning courses, issues I run into while teaching courses, ideas for courses, and more

But I also have been trying to make a habit of reading numerous other blogs on things I’m interested in (mostly teaching and learning, plus openness generally) and commenting on them when I can. It’s a great way to learn through conversation!

In addition, I’ve become quite active on Twitter, sharing resources on teaching and learning or other topics through links to articles and blogs, asking questions and getting and giving advice. I have found that there is a great community of people in the world I can discuss teaching and learning with, in addition to my colleagues closer to home. It’s a fantastic way to expand my ideas and practices, by hearing from people I might never otherwise have talked to.

Finally, I am, starting now, beginning to help develop and facilitate open online courses. The “Why Open?” course is the first one I’m helping with, and I’m also part of the organizing team for another online course that is much longer–a 10-month, professional development course for teachers and faculty (K-12 and higher ed) in educational technology. Here’s our main site as it stands so far!

I hope to do more in the way of teaching openly online in the future, and to help develop the Arts One Digital site further. I may even open one of my on-campus courses to outside participants who could join for free (without earning credit, though). That’s an idea for the future that I haven’t worked out yet!


I look forward to meeting you all and discussing openness!