About the Open Publication License

Every now and then I receive an inquiry about the status of the Open Publication License. Today I received this one:

I would like to know about your view on the “Open Publication License” today. I have had some arguments about its status. I have read in the past on some pages that is not recommended to be uses any more and rather one should use the Creative Commons licenses. The wikipedia also states that ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Publication_License). Maybe you can clarify that in a blog post with some comments on the status and how you see the OPL in relation to other licenses or what ia [sic] bad or good about it. So then I could link people to that post and not have to argue about that any more. That would be great.

So here is a whirlwind overview of Open Publication License, and where it stands today.

As pointed out in a variety of locations, such as Liang’s Guide to Open Content Licenses (thanks to Raquel for reminding me of this document last week), the Open Content License (July 14, 1998), which was replaced by the Open Publication License (June 8, 1999), were the first licenses to bring the ideals of open source software to the world of content. The OCL predates the GFDL (Nov 2002) and Creative Commons (Dec 2002) by over four years, while the improved OPL predates both by over three years.

The OCL was developed primarily by me, just as I was entering my PhD program at BYU. The improved OPL was an email collaboration between myself and others, including Eric Raymond and Tim O’Reilly. O’Reilly published several books using the OPL, including Raymond’s seminal The Cathedral and the Bazaar (e.g., see the Safari entry for CATB, or check inside the cover if you own a printed edition).

The OPL was truly innovative in that, in addition to requiring citation of the original author as source, it contained two license options which authors could choose to invoke: one restricts users’ abilities to creative derivative works, while the second restricts users’ abilities to make certain commercial uses of the material.

The student of open content licensing will recognize that these are exactly the options that Creative Commons now employs. What may be forgotten is that in version 1.0 of the Creative Commons licenses, Attribution was actually included in the licenses only as an option. In version 2.0 of the CC licenses (May 24, 2004) attribution was standard on every license, and there were two licenses options: one regarding derivative works, and one regarding commercial use. So in terms of high level structure, the OPL was here about five years before CC.

Now, while I’m so busy taking credit for the open content movement, you may ask “if your license was so great, why doesn’t anyone use it anymore?” Thanks for asking. Actually, the licenses weren’t that great, seeing as I am not a lawyer, and neither was anyone else involved in the creation of the license. The concept was right, and the execution was “good enough,” but Creative Commons (with its excellent lawyers and law school students) created a better legal instrument. As I said on the opencontent.org homepage on Monday June 30, 2003:

OpenContent is officially closed. And that’s just fine.

My main goal in beginning OpenContent back in the Spring of 1998 was to evangelize a way of thinking about sharing materials, especially those that are useful for supporting education. Here is a brief end of project report.

In the Spring of 1998 I coined the term “open content” and began evangelizing the idea. As of today, Google knows about over 125,000 uses of the term “open content” or opencontent. Google and DMOZ both have categories for “Open Content.” Harvard Law uses the term. We’ve been mentioned by the New York Times, The Economist, MIT Technology Review, Wired, Reuters, and others popular news media. Creative Commons at Stanford Law has cited OpenContent has a major inspiration. MIT has opened its content with its OpenCourseWare initiative, CMU has its Open Learning Initiative, and other schools are following. Several printed books have been published under the OPL. &c.

All told, I think we’re off to a dandy start.

I’m closing OpenContent because I think Creative Commons is doing a better job of providing licensing options which will stand up in court. As I close OpenContent, I join Creative Commons as Director of Educational Licenses. Now I can focus in on facilitating the kind of sharing most interesting to me – that which supports learning – with the pro bono support of really good IP lawyers. And I couldn’t be happier.

The OpenContent License and Open Publication License will remain online for archival purposes in their current locations. However, no future development will occur on the licenses themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of their better parts showing up in the Creative Commons licensing infrastructure soon, though.

It’s been a great run. Hope to see you over at http://creativecommons.org/ or my personal site, http://wiley.ed.usu.edu/.

OpenContent is dead. Long live OpenContent.

So this is where the OPL is: you can still find it at it’s home address of http://opencontent.org/openpub/, but I no longer develop or promote it. Anyone interested in a license like this is far better off using a Creative Commons license. If my word isn’t good enough, check this critique of the license which was written, oddly enough, a full year after I began discouraging its use.

It’s kind of surreal rereading “The Closing” now. A few updates / historical notes of interest:

  • I first had the idea for open content while ducking to push the lawn mower under this tree.
  • A quick Google search for “open content” today shows “about 1,230,000″ results. Not bad for a term that didn’t even exist back in the spring of 1998. By comparison, opencourseware returns 2,520,000 results, which is even better for a term that didn’t exist until 2001. As a final comparison point, “open educational resources” is still languishing down at 184,000.
  • Stallman thought I should call it “free content” (of course) and we had a lively email discussion that spring/summer until I firmly decided to go with open content. At the time (1998) Stallman was very keen on creating a free online encyclopedia, but basically told me that such an encyclopedia would never be licensed under any license with “open” in the title. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with Wikipedia using the GFDL or not.
  • The CC Education License effort I joined was a failure, with everyone involved wanting “education” to include both formal and informal learning – which made what we were describing so hard to differentiate from “noncommercial” that discussions collapsed under their own weight. In hindsight, this was an excellent thing, since it prevented additional license proliferation.

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