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.

15 thoughts on “Defining “Open””

  1. I like how Ubuntu Linux refers to open source as free as in freedom. Open content should be open in the sense that users have the freedom to use it as they see necessary.

  2. Again, another outstanding post! The challenge I have is with how all this openness and related licenses makes the assumption that the materials should be behind a door, a window or in a water tank in the first place. Why shouldn’t resources just be considered in the open to start with, therefore doing away with the licensing concept all together. I just say this cause the concept of applying a license to knowledge is a recent invention. Couldn’t we find a way where content just starts in the open.

    • Peter, as much as I might agree with the vision of sharing anything and everything, is there not a starting point where the development of an idea might or might not take off? Until such time as I have got my thinking straight and run a few tests I would not want to publicise something that might lead to my eternal embarrasment. Perhaps, when I feel a little more confident I will release a beta version or share the concept with a few friends. Only after that would I be confident/proud enough to share it with an unsuspecting audience.

  3. Pete, this cuts to a discussion only briefly taken seriously at the Vancouver OER conference, and in some ways is what the Capetown Declaration (or new iterances from it) could lead us to… it would be a big step for major hosting labels like Youtube to set their defaults to Public Domain or something.. complete with drop downs to close up..

  4. Hi David,

    The 4R framework is both compelling and speaks the language of educators. This is valuable contribution to our field.

    A door is open or shut, so the compelling issue is to think about the minimum criteria to assess when a door is open (as opposed to being shut.) Those of us coming from the free software traditions will argue that the RMSs essential freedoms are the minimum requirement to say that the door is open. When dealing with educational content — this is not as straight forward as the case for software.

    Another example in helping us think about these questions is the Free Cultural Works Definition ( which has been adopted by the WMF projects, WikiEdcuator and Creative Commons provide a reference to Free Cultural Works Approved Licenses. As in the case of the Open Source Software Definition — the Free Cultural Works definition does not assume any preference for license or public domain declaration — it focuses on the essential freedoms (or specific interpretations of the 4R framework.)

    In the educational context, I think that the nomenclature “open content” is better than “free content”. However this creates confusion or possibly enriches another set of discourse associated with open distance learning, namely the philosophy of open learning which underpins much of the research and theoretical work in distance education. The OER movement would benefit tremendously from reading this cannon of research, particularly the debates giving meaning and depth to the concept of “Open Learning” as published in the distance education literature.

    In my view openness is not a debate about copyright, licenses or public domain. These are merely instruments used to implement the underlying values and philosophy of what we’re collectively trying to achieve.

  5. Thank you for this insightful contribution to this important conversation. There are a few issues not addressed on which I’d appreciate hearing your thinking.

    Although you would like to avoid a binary approach there must be a point at which something is not open but closed. When do you think that point is reached? The reason this is important is that one commentator on open education has suggested that content available to anyone on RAND (reasonable and non discriminatory) terms is “open”. I don’t agree. In principle a licence fee renders content closed. In practise RAND is never reasonable and non discriminatory. A charge of 1 USD might be “reasonable” in the United States but would not be in Mozambique where most people live on less than 1 USD a day. Even if the price were lowered for people in Mozambique they would have no means of paying it, since they don’t have access to credit cards or payment mechanisms. If open is to have a global rather than US-centric meaning then the realities of the lives of ordinary people around the world need to be taken into account.

    This is not to say that open educational content producers or distributors should not create business models which involve charging for some uses of content, but that in describing the content as open only the royalty free uses can be taken into account. Thus a publisher could licence content for non commercial use, and legitimately describe the content as open, and then charge for commercial uses of the content. The commercial use would be under a different licence and wouldn’t be described as open.

    The next issue is that whether a resource is open or not is dependent not only licences but format. A notionally open resource which cannot be easily reproduced, revised, re-mixed and re-distributed cannot be described as open. In this context proprietary formats, which require a re-user to purchase software to use a resource constitute an indirect levy on re-users. This could be considered part of the sliding scale of openness, with a rather a resource which is technically harder to re-use, or in a proprietary format, less open than a resource which is an open format and usable with free tools.

    Finally I’d like to hear more on the distinction between re-mix and revise.

    • Hi Andrew
      I could not agree with you more. I have lived in some of these countries and have witnessed these problem, mostly not having a mechanism for payment.
      In my opinion, if its free it is open and if there are restrictions in terms of money or use of content, it is not open. I see little reason to get involved with language, definitions etc. keep it simple.

  6. Very interesting this post and all the comments about it. But in my opinion there is an approach of openess that is previous to the approach based in the concept of open source.
    From the pedagogical point of view we have used the concept “open” before using it with this sense. In 90th we spoke about open contents in oposition to closed contents -explaining this based in the concept of hypertext and hypermedia defined in 60th-. In our definition, open content is a pedagogical structure of information that promote the surfing in the net, so in other words, open content is a digital course designed thinking in a student who have to use other links, other documents, other digital information. Closed content would be a pedagogical structure that is enough to obtain the goals defined previosly, it´s no necesary to go out and there aren´t links to do it.

  7. Your 4 Rs confirm again that Open Content is not what the global Open Access movement is seeking for their peer-reviewed research articles. R1 and R4 and to some extent R3 more or less come with the free online territory (as long as you “use” the URL rather than the verbatim text); and of course the *content* can be fully re-used, mixed and matched (with attribution). But the real gist of Open Content, R2, fine for Open Data as well as for videos, music and software, if the creators so wish it, is definitely wrong and undesired by the authors of the 2.5 million articles published each year in the planet’s 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, OA’s target content. Free online access (“Gratis OA”) is all that is sought.

  8. As someone who works for The Open University as well as in Open Educational Resources/Open Contner. There is certainly a changing definition but it is worth looking back at the openness behind the OU’s establishment which was about providing open access not in terms of cost and copyright but avoiding pre judgement of ability and methods. The Ou mission from 40 years ago and today is Open as to people, places, methods and ideas. These turn out to be fairly resilient principles that sit well with the move to open content. My colleague Martin Weller wrote some more on this at


  9. Thank you for clarifying open as it pertains to software and content. As a music educator, I find this very intriguing and informative.

  10. Este ejemplo de la puerta es esclarecedor, ya que la apertura de la información o de cualquier contenido puede tener distintos matices. Esto nos hace reflexionar sobre si lo que se anuncia como “abierto” es verdaderamente abierto o sólo parcialmente, y derivar a los distintos tipos de licencias.En este aspecto, el tener presentes los cuatro derechos que se mencionan nos sirven de parámetro al momento de medir la “apertura” del conocimiento.

  11. example, really helped me to better understand the differences between open content and free content. Well same to compare their meanings

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