Why We Should Expand Our OER Advocacy to Commercial Publishers


Here’s a trivia question for you: which American organization has produced the largest number of open textbooks? Here’s a hint: they’ve produced more than double the number of books created by the next largest producer. Here’s another hint: they haven’t created a new open textbook since 2012. You may have thought the answer was the non-profit OpenStax, who have published over 40 open textbooks. But the correct answer is actually commercial publisher Flat World Knowledge, who published over 100 textbooks under Creative Commons licenses. Although they would eventually change their model to focus on traditionally copyrighted textbooks, FWK’s over 100 openly licensed textbooks can still be found archived around the web in places like the Open Textbook Library and on the Saylor Foundation’s website. The open textbooks created by this commercial publisher are still being used and even adapted, providing the foundations for books like Research Methods in Psychology – 2nd Canadian Edition, Introductory Chemistry – 1st Canadian Edition, Fundamentals of Business – Canadian Edition, and Writing for Success – 1st Canadian Edition, among others.

Effective Advocacy

Headshot of Christine Peterson

In describing her coining of the phrase “open source software” in 1998, Christine Peterson wrote:

The introduction of the term “open source software” was a deliberate effort to make this field of endeavor more understandable to newcomers and to business, which was viewed as necessary to its spread to a broader community of users. The problem with the main earlier label, “free software,” was not its political connotations, but that—to newcomers—its seeming focus on price is distracting. A term was needed that focuses on the key issue of source code and that does not immediately confuse those new to the concept. The first term that came along at the right time and fulfilled these requirements was rapidly adopted: open source.

From the very beginning, advocates of open source understood that businesses would be key to the success of their model. They understood the outsized influence that billion dollar behemoths like Microsoft would continue to have, and knew that the only way the open source model could “win” would be if proprietary software companies adopted it. (This was an extremely contentious position to take in the late 1990s, when many “free software” advocates described Microsoft as “the Great Satan” and felt similarly about all companies who produced proprietary software.)

I coined the phrase “open content” a few months later in 1998 (rather than “free content”, which free software advocates lobbied me to use) to describe the textbooks and lecture notes and journal articles and syllabi and other materials that would be published under a new open source-style license designed for educational materials and other creative works (this is four years before the CC licenses). Having watched the open vs free conversation play out publicly, I chose “open” instead of “free” for exactly the same reasons Christine outlined above. (In 2002, UNESCO followed those leads choosing to name the subset of open content that was useful for teaching and learning “open educational resources,” instead of a name with “free” in the title.)

Christine and others who advocated for the new phrase “open source software” were prescient in doing so. Two decades later, their strategy has clearly paid off: for-profit companies create and contribute to an incredible amount of open source software. As I explained previously:

There is a popular myth that most of the people writing open source software do this work in their spare time for altruistic reasons. The data in the [Linux Foundation’s] Kernel Development report shatter this illusion. “Developers who are known to be doing this work on their own, with no financial contribution happening from any company” represented only 8.2% of all the changes contributed to the kernel during this period (p. 14). In other words, the overwhelming majority of the people who contribute to the Linux kernel are people whose job descriptions include ‘writing code that you will give away under an open source license that allows commercialization by anyone – including our competitors.’ Over one third (34.5%) of all the contributions to the 4.8 – 4.13 releases of the Linux kernel came from employees at Intel, IBM, Google, Facebook, Samsung, RedHat, and SUSE. These are huge companies that compete directly with each other in many ways. But they are also huge companies that pay their employers to give some of their work away to everyone – including their competitors – under open licenses.

And we’re not talking about a small number of contributions. The report goes on to explain that contributions to the open source Linux kernel were accepted at a rate of 8.5 contributions per hour over the 400 days covered by the report. 8.5 improvements per hour, every hour, 24 hours a day, for 406 consecutive days. (I’ll do the math for you – that’s 8.5 * 24 * 406 = 82,820+ contributions accepted in just over a year.) It’s worth keeping in mind that people actually did far more work than this represents, since not all contributions are accepted. 8.5 contributions per hour, every day, for over 400 days is the rate at which contributions were accepted.

Two decades ago it would have been impossible to imagine major proprietary software vendors collaborating on open source software with their competitors. Today, this is the new normal – open sharing and collaboration within what is otherwise an absolutely cutthroat industry. And it’s not only “newer” companies like Google or Facebook. IBM, one of the oldest of the old guard, has in many ways led the migration of proprietary companies into open source. Even Microsoft now hosts almost 3000 open source projects in their GitHub account, including the incredibly popular Visual Studio Code.

Open source software has been so successful with businesses – literally changing their behaviors and pulling their business models in new directions – because open source advocates specifically targeted businesses. Advocates helped businesses understand the ways that adopting an open source model would be good for their business. This has been the core of the open source software advocacy strategy – not appeals to altruism, and certainly not moralizing grandstanding – but a rational, self-interested explanation of why a business would benefit from adopting the open source model.

There would be huge benefits to the OER ecosystem if we made similar arguments with commercial publishers, helping them understand why switching to an OER model would be good for their business.

Why Commercial Publishers Should Switch to an OER Model

Surprisingly, commercial publishers have the same problems with their content that the rest of us do. For starters, their content is too expensive and its licensing precludes remixing. These two problems look a little different from their perspective – but they are absolutely the same problems. And a switch to OER would help publishers solve both of them.

1. Commercial publishers’ content is too expensive – for them. The harsh business reality for publishers is that they are competing in a world increasingly filled with OER. While there is still a lot of work to do in filling out the long tail of course content (i.e., OER is still missing for the majority of college courses), there is great OER available for many of the high enrolling courses that have historically provided publishers with the majority of their revenue. The competition from free PDFs of OER and low cost OER-based courseware is dragging down the price publishers can charge for their materials. And while publishers’ prices have been falling for a few years now, their costs to provide materials have not.

OER and TCM (traditionally copyrighted materials) are alike in that they both have an upfront cost to create. However, they differ dramatically in what comes next. The core TCM used by publishers – the words written by that big name author whose name adorns the cover – are encumbered with author royalties. For every copy of a book that is sold, for every digital copy that is accessed as part of a subscription service, for every use in any format or modality that may exist now or be invented in the future, the publisher owes money to the author. These royalty payments (and the expensive and convoluted systems for tracking when they need to be paid) are like anchors dragging behind publishers’ business models. Royalty-bearing TCM cannot compete economically with non-royalty-bearing OER over the long term. Those royalty payments have to be removed from publishers’ financial models eventually. A switch to OER makes that happen. Using OER instead of TCM is in publishers’ best interests.

2. Commercial publishers’ learning materials are trapped in a copyright thicket that prevents remixing – by them. Learning materials sold by commercial publishers frequently include pre-existing copyrighted material (e.g., images) they have paid to license from third parties. Newer editions of books include contributions licensed from a range of authors. A single textbook may include material from dozens of sources, each individually licensed and/or paid for, with only a specific set of uses permitted under those license agreements. Consequently, a commercial publisher cannot even reach into their own back catalog to create new learning materials by remixing pre-existing materials. In a very real sense, their own books aren’t their own.

While organizations that use OER have incredible flexibility in what they can revise and remix (with occasional complications caused by the CC licenses’ SA and NC conditions), commercial publishers are forever caught in a web of tangled, bespoke licensing agreements with hundreds of thousands of licensors across the tens of thousands of titles in their catalog. These complications limit publishers’ ability to innovate and respond to the changing market for learning materials. A switch to OER removes these obstacles. Again, using OER instead of TCM is in publishers’ best interests.

3. A third problem publishers could solve with a move to OER is the whole range of costs and complications associated with digital rights management (DRM) in their technical infrastructure for managing and delivering learning materials. As I’ve said many times in the past, DRM is an arms race between multinational corporations and teenagers – one that that teenagers are constantly winning. Publishers’ systems must be DRM-enabled in ways that “prevent” (aka, make it mildly difficult) for students to make unauthorized uses of publisher content – utterly basic things like printing or copying and pasting, and more advanced things like screen scraping. A lot of money and effort goes into making TCM difficult to copy. With OER, there’s no need to prevent printing, or using the mouse to copy and paste, or automated screen scraping, or any other manner of copying. If a publisher were to move to OER, they could stop spending time and money on losing the DRM arms race. Again, using OER instead of TCM is in publishers’ best interests.

Why Should We Help Them?

Why should we spend our time and energy advocating for commercial publishers to adopt OER as part (or all) of their publishing model? For many reasons. First, we need many, many more OER options, and commercial publishers are great at creating learning materials. The fact that a startup like Flat World that hasn’t published a new open textbook in seven years is still the largest publisher of open textbooks in the US (by more than double) suggests how much OER an even larger commercial publisher could create if they were to put an OER model at the center of their work.

More OER options will lead to more OER adoptions. More OER adoptions will empower more faculty to engage in OER-enabled pedagogy and other open educational practices. And when more faculty are adopting OER and engaging in open educational practices, good things will happen. If commercial publishers made OER creation and revision a core part of their publishing model, it would be good for publishers, faculty, and students.

The second reason we should spend time advocating with commercial publishers is that, whether you want to admit it or not, we need them. More specifically, we need their content. Consider the following thought experiment:

It’s spring 2021 and the major commercial textbook publishers have all gone out of business. As part of winding down their businesses and paying off creditors, they each sold the copyrights to all the materials in their catalogs to a holding company. This company has publicly stated it has no plans to sell any of these materials in the future, but it will be aggressively defending its copyrights (so no or very limited “pirating” will be possible).

What would higher education do in fall 2021? Yes, general education courses would largely be fine because of the wealth of OER that exists for the 200 or so highest enrolling courses. But what about the 2000 or more other courses offered on your campus? What would those faculty and students do for course materials? Publishers’ digital products have completely vanished. Students might be able to rely on printed books available in the used market for a few years (until those physically deteriorated beyond usability). Then what? How much time and money would it take to create another 2000 courses worth of OER to replace all that TCM? (For context, keep in mind that to date people and institutions in the US have spent over 20 years and $2B working on open education.)

You may find the whole thought experiment completely academic (i.e., not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest). But while there may only be good OER options for 200 courses out of the 2000 some courses offered on your campus, those are the 200 highest enrolling courses on your campus. Those 200 courses may account for 50% or more of commercial publishers’ annual revenue. What will happen to commercial publishers when that revenue utterly collapses as the transition to OER in general education runs its course?

But what might happen if, instead of being outside it, publishers are part of the transition to OER? And how might that begin? The copyright thicket issue means that publishers can’t easily reach into their back catalog and just “flip” their existing textbooks to OER. At a minimum, they will need to remove the materials licensed from third-parties and possibly negotiate new contracts with their authors before they could relicense “their own” titles under a CC license. That’s going to be a lot of work.

Perhaps the best first step a publisher could take is to change their future contracts so that the content created by new authors they work with either (1) is work for hire that the publisher contractually commits to license under a CC license or (2) belongs to the author (for copyright purposes) who contractually commits to license it under a CC license. If you’ve been following along, there are already some interesting examples of approaches like these in the K-12 space (c.f., Open Up Resources and EngageNY). Such a move would not only lower costs for publishers going forward (so long, royalties!), but it would also create an entirely new category of ways faculty and students could engage with publishers (e.g., open source-style co-development).


The argument open source software advocates make to proprietary software companies is simple – for a lot of the work you do, adopting an open source licensing and development model will result in better products that cost you less to produce and maintain. In other words, being open will be better for your business than staying closed. And rather than being ideological purists who see a company that “only” open sources some of its software products as a failure, open source advocates see any level of participation as a win. They understand that these kinds of changes are complex and take time. They also understand that for a company to be able to continue to pay people to produce open source software, there must be some other proprietary product or value-added service the company can sell in order to generate the revenue they use to pay their people.

If we can help commercial publishers understand why adopting an open licensing and development model will be better for their businesses, we can unlock a massive amount of OER creation and sharing that will benefit students, faculty, and yes, publishers. It’s a win – win – win. And we should do it.