Defining “Open”

I’ve seen a lot of confusion on the interwebz lately about the meaning of the term open – like people linking to copyrighted videos posted illegally in YouTube as examples of OERs. Since I have a keen interest in people understanding the term “open content” the way I originally intended for them to, I will soon be adding a “definition” section to (I think of the “open” in open educational resources the same way, though I neither have nor claim special authority to clarify its definition.) Here’s a first draft of what will appear there. Your feedback would be appreciated. (You may recognize some of this as material that has appeared on my blog in the past.)

What is the History of the Term “Open Content?”

The words “open” and “content” were first used together in the spring of 1998. “Open content” was and is an attempt to appropriately adapt the logic of “open source” software to the non-software world of cultural and scientific artifacts like music, literature, and images.

The term “open source software” and the corresponding movement were established earlier in 1998 in reaction to perceived problems with the term “free software” and its associated movement. While advocates of free software focus their message on the philosophical principle of freedom, advocates of open source software focus their message on the pragmatic benefits of being open. Consequently, arguments in favor of free software run primarily along the lines of “because you should,” while arguments in favor of open source software run primarily along the lines of “here’s how you’ll benefit if you do.”

I waited to make the decision between the terms “open content” and “free content” until discussing the choices with the leaders of both camps (Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman). I then made the decision very deliberately. I wanted the open content movement to be about demonstrating usefulness and value that people would hopefully find persuasive.

So there you have the history of the term – “open content.”

What Does the “Open” in Open Content Mean?

“Open” is a continuous, not binary, construct. A door can be wide open, completely shut, or open part way. So can a window. So can a faucet. So can your eyes. Our commonsense, every day experience teaches us that “open” is continuous. Anyone who will argue that “open” is a binary construct is forced to admit that a door cracked open one centimeter is just as open as a door standing wide open, because their conception of the term is overly simplified and has no nuance.

Alternately, a would-be definer might adopt an artificial definition, in which a door opened 20 cm or more is considered open while a door opened 19 cm is not considered open. But this type of arbitrary definition is unsatisfactory as well. For example, the “open” in “open source” has no nuance as it has been artificially binary-ized. The open source definition tells us very clearly what a license must and must not do in order to be permitted to describe itself with the trademarked term “open source.” In the eyes of the defenders of the “open source” brand, if you’re not open enough you’re not open at all.

Much as we might measure the openness of a door in centimeters, we measure the openness of content in terms of the rights a user of the content is granted. The 4Rs Framework describes the four most important rights:

1. Reuse – the right to reuse the content in its unaltered / verbatim form
2. Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself
3. Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other content to create something new
4. Redistribute – the right to make and share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others

To the degree that a license provides users with no-cost (free) permission to exercise these rights with regard to content, that content is open. So, whether these rights are granted unconditionally, or permitted only if the user meets certain conditions (e.g., requiring attribution, requiring distribution of derivatives under a specified license, or prohibiting commercial redistribution), it is still appropriate to call this content open. But the more conditions placed on the user, the less open the content. The fewer restrictions a license places on a user’s ability to exercise 4R rights in the content, the more open the content is.

Haven’t Other’s Already Defined “Open” in this Context?

In the past, some people unaffiliated with have taken it upon themselves to “define the open in open content” and propose artificial definitions like those described above. The Open Knowledge Definition is one such attempt, which is an adaptation of the Open Source Definition, which is itself an adaptation of the Debian Free Software Guidelines.

At the top of this article I wrote that “open content” was and is an attempt to appropriately adapt the logic of “open source” software to the non-software world of cultural and scientific artifacts like music, literature, and images. I don’t believe that changing the words of DFSG is an appropriate way to arrive at a definition of the open in open content. The context of content is quite different from the context of software. For example, the DFSG and its descendants fail to distinguish between revision and remixing. This may be fine for software, but failing to consider these activities separately in the context of content has lead to endless confusion among educators. After a decade of talking to educators and other academics about open content (and open educational resources) I feel that a new framework – specifically, the 4Rs Framework – is a more productive way to talk about openness than the DFSG or its adapted children.

How Open is Open Enough?

People make the choice to use an open license with their content for a variety of reasons. Starting with the Open Publication License and including the Creative Commons licenses, the open content licenses have been crafted in a way that recognizes that people choose the path of openness for different reasons. The licenses have therefore provided people with license options to help them more effectively accomplish their personal goals. This tolerance for different goals and explicit support for people in achieving them is something we should cherish and extend beyond our licenses into our community discourse and behavior. If another person or institution’s approach to openness doesn’t help you meet your goals, then look for help somewhere else – don’t criticize them.