Refining the Definition of “Open” in Open Content

Earlier this week I read the Wikipedia entry on open content. Suffice it to say I was somewhat disappointed by the way the editors of the page interpreted my writings defining the “open” in open content. I think their interpretation was plausible and legitimate, but it is certainly not the message I intended people to take away after reading the definition. So, the fault for my unhappiness is mine for not having been clearer in my writing.

Consequently, I have refined and clarified the definition, which lives at, including a new heading for the section on license requirements and restrictions, and a new section on technical decisions and ALMS analysis. I present the revised definition and commentary below for quick reference. I’d be very interested in your reactions and feedback.

Hopefully the Wikipedians will update the entry soon…

Defining the “Open” in Open Content

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)

Legal Requirements and Restrictions
Make Open Content Less Open

While a free and perpetual grant of the 5R permissions by means of an “open license” qualifies a creative work to be described as open content, many open licenses place requirements (e.g., mandating that derivative works adopt a certain license) and restrictions (e.g., prohibiting “commercial” use) on users as a condition of the grant of the 5R permissions. The inclusion of requirements and restrictions in open licenses make open content less open than it would be without these requirements and restrictions.

There is disagreement in the community about which requirements and restrictions should never, sometimes, or always be included in open licenses. Creative Commons, the most important provider of open licenses for content, offers licenses that prohibit commercial use. While some in the community believe there are important use cases where the noncommercial restriction is desirable, many in the community eschew the restriction. Wikipedia, one of the most important collections of open content, requires all derivative works to adopt a specific license. While they clearly believe this additional requirement promotes their particular use case, it makes Wikipedia content incompatible with content from other important open content collections, such as MIT OpenCourseWare.

Generally speaking, while the choice by open content publishers to use licenses that include requirements and restrictions can optimize their ability to accomplish their own local goals, the choice typically harms the global goals of the broader open content community.

Poor Technical Choices
Make Open Content Less Open

While open licenses provide users with legal permission to engage in the 5R activities, many open content publishers make technical choices that interfere with a user’s ability to engage in those same activities. The ALMS Framework provides a way of thinking about those technical choices and understanding the degree to which they enable or impede a user’s ability to engage in the 5R activities permitted by open licenses. Specifically, the ALMS Framework encourages us to ask questions in four categories:

  1. Access to Editing Tools: Is the open content published in a format that can only be revised or remixed using tools that are extremely expensive (e.g., 3DS MAX)? Is the open content published in an exotic format that can only be revised or remixed using tools that run on an obscure or discontinued platform (e.g., OS/2)? Is the open content published in a format that can be revised or remixed using tools that are freely available and run on all major platforms (e.g., OpenOffice)?
  2. Level of Expertise Required: Is the open content published in a format that requires a significant amount technical expertise to revise or remix (e.g., Blender)? Is the open content published in a format that requires a minimum level of technical expertise to revise or remix (e.g., Word)?
  3. Meaningfully Editable: Is the open content published in a manner that makes its content essentially impossible to revise or remix (e.g., a scanned image of a handwritten document)? Is the open content published in a manner making its content easy to revise or remix (e.g., a text file)?
  4. Self-Sourced: It the format preferred for consuming the open content the same format preferred for revising or remixing the open content (e.g., HTML)? Is the format preferred for consuming the open content different from the format preferred for revising or remixing the open content (e.g. Flash FLA vs SWF)?

Using the ALMS Framework as a guide, open content publishers can make technical choices that enable the greatest number of people possible to engage in the 5R activities. This is not an argument for “dumbing down” all open content to plain text. Rather it is an invitation to open content publishers to be thoughtful in the technical choices they make – whether they are publishing text, images, audio, video, simulations, or other media.

8 thoughts on “Refining the Definition of “Open” in Open Content”

  1. Creating and sharing open content in online platforms leads to additional practical considerations, related to the ALMS Framework. Here are some I find important:

    1. Ease of platform use: The old Connexions platform was an example, which provided access to a tool that had the capability for doing meaningful edits, and it didn’t require much expertise, but it was painfully tedious to use.

    2. Retention: Will the platform stick around? Can you export your content from the platform and retain a copy in a useable format in case the platform goes away?

    3. Lock-in: Related to #2, this is the question of whether the platform is proprietary. Perhaps there is a way to export/retain your data, but do you risk losing access to convenient editing tools and a slick reading environment if you’re using a free platform and the platform owner decides to stop offering free access? Or do you risk ads showing up in your content in the future?

    4. Access: Is the platform open? An LMS can provide convenient editing tools, but housing open content in a closed-access LMS seriously restricts the ability for others to exercise the 5R’s, including students after the end of a term.

  2. It’s a little bit unfair that you critique Wikipedia for its part in the incompatibility with MIT Open Courseware given that MIT *also* uses the Share-Alike clause. So they both use that restriction, and only the *additional* NC restriction from MIT causes the incompatibility. Your phrasing sets out to blame Wikipedia, and in this case that’s flat out wrong. Wikipedia could drop the SA and they’d *still* be incompatible with MIT Open Courseware!

    I know you’re also avoiding the debate, but the facts are simple: The NC clause creates incompatibility even without the SA. I cannot readily use NC material in a work that I want to license CC-BY (no SA at all here) because it is awkward to try to tell people they *can* use the product commercially while they actually can’t. My contribution to the product may lack the NC clause, but the product as a whole is still problematic.

    • I guess I should clarify: Wikipedia without the SA would be compatible one-direction with MIT, but the compatibility problem is still mainly MIT’s fault (via CC-BY-NC-SA), not Wikipedia’s.

      • BOTH the NC and the SA clause cause compatibility problems. I don’t deny that NC causes problems – in fact I’ve written about those problems at great length on this blog. NC is almost too obvious an example to be instructive in the explanation.

        Like your example where Wikipedia without the SA would be “compatible one direction” with MIT OCW, Wikipedia with the SA is “compatible one direction,” albeit the *other* direction, with a CC BY OpenStax resource.

        There is a very vocal pro-NC community, just as there is a very vocal pro-SA community. The definition of open doesn’t pass judgment on either community’s position, it simply makes the point that both clauses place restrictions on users. And while those restrictions may work to the benefit of those who choose them, they do so at the expense of the broader community by increasing the friction involved in working with open content.

      • I’m not denying there are issues, and I’m not saying that being vocal should be a sign of being right. My only real point was an objection to characterizing Wikipedia’s license as being the one to blame between two resources that are incompatible. Given the effort you’re making to critique both NC and SA, it’s unreasonable to imply innocence from MIT which uses *both* restrictions and blame Wikipedia which uses only one. This point I’m making remains valid regardless of my judgments about the terms.

        Anyway, the Open Educational Resources and Open Access stuff that you’re familiar with are indeed vague on this as is your Open Content definition. However, the definitions of Open that bother working to be precise and not vague all say that SA is still Open and NC is not. Those terms being the Open Definition from Open Knowledge, the definition of Open Source, the definition of Free Software, and the definition of Free Cultural Works. In all those, NC is considered non-open, non-free; and SA is acceptable. I know of no definition whatever that considers NC acceptable but not SA.

        On a brief positive note: I like the overall style of your Open Content definition, especially the new update.

  3. I have worked on courses that used a wide variety of materials with a wide variety of licenses. No injuries or neck strain occurred. I have faculty at two colleges who would not contribute content unless I could reassure them that the content was NOT going to be used commercially. They want to use the open license to bring costs down for students. They are not interested in commercial gain or supporting corporations who wish to profit from work they are are trying to make freely available. “Open” should not have to mean “open for exploitation.” How would you address the concerns of those faculty? Couldn’t a Flatworld-Knowledge-type company just come along and defeat the purpose of Creative Commons?

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