Reflections on 20 Years of Open Content: Lessons from Open Source

This essay is crossposted from the #OER18 website.

2018 marks the 20th anniversary of open content. I’ll be writing a range of essays this year reflecting on two decades of work toward opening the core intellectual infrastructure of education (textbooks and other educational materials, assessments, and outcomes / objectives / competency statements) in order to increase access to and improve the effectiveness of education. This post, written as part of my agreement to keynote #OER18 later this spring, provides some historical context for the emergence of open content.

I don’t make any claim to objectivity here – this history is written wholly from my personal point of view. You may have seen it differently. That is the nature of history.

In late 1997 and early 1998, the free software movement had two problems that were impeding its growth. First, the way its proponents talked about free software came across as incredibly judgmental and holier-than-thou. ‘Free software is about freedom, perhaps humanity’s grandest ideal, and if you don’t support free software it’s because you don’t sufficiently love and appreciate freedom.’ If you didn’t support free software it was due to your personal moral shortcomings.

The second obstacle standing in the way of the broad adoption of free software was the word “free”. Many free software advocates understood that without adoption and use by business and industry, free software would never live up to its transformative potential. However, the word “free” was extremely confusing and, in fact, downright scary to businesses. Confusion over the meaning of the word “free” (e.g., ‘if my company uses programs licensed as free software, does that mean I can’t charge customers?’) was the original fear, uncertainty, and doubt that kept companies from engaging in this work.

In early 1998, a group of advocates got together for a strategy meeting to discuss how they could advance the cause of free software. The strategy they eventually agreed to adopt addressed both of the problems identified above. They would coin a new name – “open source software” – that would sidestep the confusion caused by the word “free”. They would focus their messaging on the pragmatic benefits of collaboration, peer review, and the other virtues of working with open source. And they would freely acknowledge that there were times when open sourcing your software wasn’t the best choice that could be made.

In the mid 1990s I created what we would now call a small internet startup in Huntington, WV with several friends. We did everything from trainings on how to use the internet for journalists and other interested people in the community, to developing websites for people, companies, and cities, to home internet installations in partnership with a local ISP, to installing a dial-in server for the county school board so teachers could connect to the internet from home for free. I was a big fan of free software, if not a big fan of the movement.

In 1996 we closed the company and I went to work for Marshall University, where I was completing my undergraduate degree in music, as its first webmaster. This is where I first started to imagine what the internet could do for education, first used the internet in my own teaching (as an adjunct in CS), and first understood the power of the nonrivalrous nature of digital resources.

When the university got serious about exploring the use of the internet for education, as webmaster I was appointed chair of the Electronic Course Oversite Committee. (Yes, we spelled it Oversite – both as a nod to the websites that were emerging at the time and, honestly, because it made the administration crazy that we misspelled the name of such an important committee.) It would be unthinkable today to have a webmaster chair a committee tasked with everything from creating funding models for online course development to writing the policy regarding ownership (copyright) of the materials created by faculty for use when teaching online. But it was the 1990s, and no one knew what a webmaster’s “real” role was back then. I was the first the university had ever employed.

In late 1997 I, like many others, was deeply inspired by Eric Raymond’s essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar. CatB may have had a more profound influence on my life than any other piece of writing (excepting scripture). It clearly articulated things I felt deeply but couldn’t say, while also teaching me to think in new ways. When “open source” happened in early 1998, followed by Netscape’s announcement that it would open source the most important piece of software in my life, it was all I could think about.

In mid-1998 I moved to Utah to attend graduate school at Brigham Young University, where I planned to continue thinking and learning about how the internet could improve education. Shortly after arriving in Utah, I realized that these two worlds – the world of webpages and other digital content created in support of education, and the world of open source software – didn’t have to exist independently. They could be brought together. Til my dying day I will remember, clear as a bell, the moment mowing the lawn to the side of the triplex where we lived at the time, thinking, “we should do this [take an open source approach] for educational materials.”

I tentatively wrote emails to Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond, introducing myself and pitching the idea. What if we applied open licenses to things like textbooks and research articles – things that aren’t software? That would be important, right?

While I (very sadly) no longer have these emails, I remember Richard’s response being relatively brief. He was supportive of the idea generally but seemed most concerned that, whatever I did, I use the word “free” in its title (and not “open”). He also encouraged me to drop out of graduate school as he thought it would be a waste of time. Eric’s response was also supportive, but longer and more encouraging.

I took out a yellow legal pad and began brainstorming names. What to call this thing? I started pairing “free” and “open” with a range of nouns – things like Free resources / Open resources. Free works / Open works. Free content / Open content. I was philosophically more aligned with open. Eric seemed like he’d be easier to work with. I liked the sound of open content, but agonized over whether or not the noun should be more education-specific (something like “textbooks”, though that was too narrow) since my primary interest was education. In the end, I decided that the principles of open source should be applied to more things than just educational materials. I decided to call it open content.

The first step in making “open content” real was creating an open source-style license for content. This had never been done before and, like many other first attempts, was done poorly (by me). The first OpenContent License was an adaptation of the GPL that made the license suitable for use with content, removing language and ideas that were specific to software and replacing them with language and ideas specific to content. Uptake of this license was very low, and the very first year of the OpenContent project was very slow going.

In 1999, after many conversations about what it would take for people who published things like books and articles to agree to use an open license, Eric drafted the Open Publication License and we began promoting it instead of the OpenContent License. This received much more adoption than the original license. Eric’s book The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary was published under the OPL by O’Reilly. My book The Instructional Use of Learning Objects was jointly published by AIT and AECT under the OPL. RedHat published its technical documentation under the OPL. Hundreds of thousands of pages of online (and occasionally offline) content were eventually licensed under the OPL.

And yet, there were problems.

The OPL required attribution and contained two options a licensor could elect to invoke – one prohibiting commercial uses and the other prohibiting making changes. These were named Option A and Option B and no one could ever remember which option was which. Additionally, there was no standard way of communicating which options you may or may not have intended to invoke when you used the OPL to license your content. Finally, there was only one website button, making it was impossible to tell from the logo which license options the copyright holder had invoked when licensing their work.

That there were problems with these early licenses is easy to understand. Neither Eric nor I are lawyers. Eric was an amazing hacker with an anthropologist’s knack for seeing the world around him. I was a music major from West Virginia. Neither of us wanted to be in the business of writing (and heaven forbid enforcing) copyright licenses. When Creative Commons released its first licenses in late 2002 it was a Godsend. The CC licenses included NonCommercial and NoDerivatives options, making them (conceptually) compatible with the OPL and providing an easy migration path for users. CC eventually solved the Option A and B problem by creating multiple, named licenses (like CC BY). And they eventually solved the button problem with iconography, so you could know which specific license applied to a work just by seeing the badge. It was awesome.

With some actual lawyers with actual IP expertise focused on creating enforceable open licenses, we were able to focus all our energies on doing the things we actually wanted to be doing. We officially closed down the licensing work being coordinated by OpenContent. I briefly joined Creative Commons as Project Lead for Educational Licensing to help CC explore whether or not they needed a license specifically for the education context. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.) With that project completed, I finally got back to the reason I started all this work in the first place – trying to bring open licensing and the other principles and practices of open source software to education, so that students and teachers could recognize the same benefits users and creators of open source software recognize.

The #OER18 organizers asked specifically that I share what I believe to be important lessons that may be controversial or unpopular. I’ll speak about more of these lessons in my keynote at the conference, but will preview one of them here. I believe there are important lessons for the open education movement in these first five years of work on open content, because in many ways the open education movement today is very much like the free software movement was 20 years ago.

As I explained above, one of the primary reasons the “open source” name and movement exist today is because people realized that the full potential of open collaboration around the development and iterative improvement of software could never be realized without finding ways to collaborate productively with business and industry. Twenty years ago, proprietary software companies like Microsoft were equivalent to the devil himself for many in the open source community, much as commercial publishers like Pearson are demonized by many in the open education movement today. Twenty years ago, the open source movement proactively worked to reach out to businesses, help them understand what open source was about, and did everything they could to get them involved. How has that worked out?

Over the last twenty years every major software company (and new entrants during that period), including Microsoft, has become a major contributor to open source. Today many of the most important contributions to many of the most important open source projects are made by people who work for for-profit companies and who contribute to open source projects as part of their formal job responsibilities. They contribute millions of lines of code each year. In fact, many of the world’s most-used open source projects were originated by and are maintained by companies.

Where would open source software (and free software) be today if open source advocates and champions hadn’t gone out of their way to involve companies in their work and count them among the members of their community? Close to nowhere.

One of the main differences between the open source movement twenty years ago and the open education movement today is in our attitude toward what I would call “wins”. When Netscape announced they were open sourcing their web browser, the open source community’s reaction was largely (though not unanimously), “Yay! We’re making progress! Companies are starting to ‘get it’!” When companies announced they were moving major infrastructure from proprietary databases like Oracle to open source solutions like Postgres, the open source community’s reaction was largely, “Yay! We’re making progress! Companies are starting to see the benefits of using open source!”

However, when a commercial publisher announces their intention to release some of their proprietary content under a CC BY license, the open education community’s response is largely (though not unanimously) “What’s their angle? I don’t trust them. What made them think we’d want them involved in our movement?” When a commercial publisher switches from using proprietary content to using OER in some of their products, the community’s reaction is largely, “What’s wrong with them? Freeriders! They’re just out to make an easy buck.”

The open education community’s willingness or unwillingness to be more inclusive, welcoming, and supportive of newcomers – even those from private enterprise – will largely predict its ability to grow and have the kind of dramatic impact we all want it to have. Can you imagine a day when many of the most important contributions to many of the most important OER and open textbook projects are made by people who work for for-profit publishers and other companies, and who contribute to OER as part of their formal job responsibilities? Can you imagine a day when many of the world’s most-used OER were originally published by companies, who continue to invest in their ongoing updates and maintenance? Can you imagine a day when companies are releasing millions of new words, images, videos, and interactives under open licenses each year?

Would you like to live in that world?