Open Definitions, Specificity, and Avoiding Bright Lines

Aaron Wolf is contributing to a nice thread in the comments under my description of the recently revised definition of the “open” in “open content”. I’ve revised my ShareAlike example to distribute blame evenly across Wikipedia and MIT OCW based on his comments. You can see the current version of the definition at

I want to address an accusation of Aaron’s here. He mentions other “definitions of Open that bother working to be precise and not vague,” in which category he includes the definitions from the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Free Cultural Works moderators, etc., in apparent contrast to my definition. I have a number of problems with all these definitions. I’ll address the OKF definition here just to provide a specific example.

Being ‘Precise and Not Vague’

First, the OKF definition misses the critical distinction between revising and remixing, lumping these both into the category of “modifications and derivative works.” The distinction between revising and remixing is critical because, among other things, one invokes the specter of license incompatibility while the other does not. People need to understand, plan, and manage against this important difference when they work with open content. You might argue that the difference is implied in the OKF definition, but that’s not “precise.”

Second, the OKF definition uses the language of “access” and not the language of “ownership.” In a world where things are moving increasingly toward streaming services where people can always access but never own anything, this is potentially confusing. Again, you can argue that ownership is implied in the definition, but that’s not “precise.”

Third, the OKF definition qualifies works as open based on their “manner of distribution.” After opening with this statement, 10 of the 11 clarifying bullet points begin with either the phrase “The license” or “The rights.” (The one bullet that does not begin this way could be rewritten in a clearer manner if it did.) Obviously, content qualifies as open based on the rights granted to you in its license and not based on its manner of distribution. Again, you can argue that, given the repeating chorus of rights and license language, this is implied in the definition, but that’s not “precise.”

The 5Rs in the new definition deal with each of these issues much more precisely.

Inheriting a Bright Line from the DFSG

I think the primary problem with many of these definitions is that they take the Debian Free Software Guidelines and try to coerce a document written for software to apply to content. This always results in a poor fit that feels forced. Content is different from software in meaningful ways and deserves its own treatment created specifically around its special affordances. (The OKF definition is particularly forced, as it takes a document written for software and tries, in a single derivative work, to coerce it into applying to both content and data, which are also meaningfully different from each other.)

I imagine that when Aaron says ‘definitions like the OKF definition are more “precise,”‘ what he really means to say is that these definitions draw a bright line with regard to which restrictions licensors can place on uses of content (Attribution and ShareAlike) and which ones they can’t (Noncommercial) if they want to be able to call that content “open.” I specifically refuse to draw a line of this kind in defining the open in open content.

There is a continuum of restrictions in the many licenses used for content (BY, BY NC, BY SA, BY NC SA, etc.), and I don’t find drawing an arbitrary line somewhere along that continuum to be a useful exercise. On the contrary, I find it a counterproductive exercise. Drawing this line allows people to believe that choosing a license just barely on the open side of the line (e.g., BY SA) is “good enough” and that there’s no need to consider being more open. In fact, when the continuum is collapsed into two discrete categories – open or not – the phrase “more open” doesn’t even have a meaning any longer. According to the bright line definitions, BY SA is just as open as BY – they both qualify as “open.”

By destroying the continuum of openness, the “bright line of restrictions” approach robs people of the opportunity to ask themselves questions like “should I be more open?” or “how can I be more open?” We should be doing everything we can to encourage people to ponder on those questions. We should help everyone be as open as possible, not simply “open enough.” That’s one of the main reasons why the “open” in “open content” is defined the way it is.

1 thought on “Open Definitions, Specificity, and Avoiding Bright Lines”

  1. Thank you for the insightful thoughts. I fully respect your points about the value of fuzziness, of having a continuum without hard lines. Of course, your definition still draws some very clear lines. The ND restriction is unambiguously *not* Open Content.

    The superlative claim that applying freedoms of software to other media “always results in a poor fit” seems overconfident to me. It seems to be an attempt to create a hard line between media where I think things are again more of a fuzzy continuum actually. Incidentally, though you may not approve, Debian themselves use the DFSG also for documentation and other content included in the distro aside from the programs.

    Now, in terms of your critique of the OKF definition, note that a new version 2 of that definition is pending immediate release:

    I agree that the language of “access” can be inadequate, but in a world where people talk of “intellectual property”, the term “ownership” is quite problematic itself.

    Otherwise, I agree that even the new v2 of the Open Definition is not strictly precise in terms of Revise vs Remix. Perhaps that can still be addressed. On the other hand, the vagueness present there is strongly toward respecting the Remix concern, although it avoids directly addressing license compatibility. I think your concern on this matter is valid. Again, I like your 5 R’s way of defining things largely.

    Thanks again for clarifying your thoughts and sharing these perspectives!

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