open content

Openness, Radicalism, and Tolerance

The world is increasingly divided. The world is increasingly bitterly divided. Of all the things I worry about late at night, lying in bed unable to sleep, the almost absolute absence of civility in our nation’s political discourse has loomed largest lately. Everyone on the left seems to think everyone on the right is a moron. Everyone on the right seems to think everyone on the left is a moron. The louder you scream and the meaner the things you say, the greater standing you seem to have in your political group. The recent round of vilifications of “Republicans in Name Only” and “Democrats in Name Only” provides a preview of what may soon come – an America where radicalism (i.e., actions and words showing your allegiance to either the radical right or the radical left) becomes the primary political currency. There is precious little room left for those in the center who put pragmatics before ideology and would rather discuss and understand than accuse and belittle.

(It sort of reminds me of Lady Gaga, and the way that the music industry has become a contest to see who can pair the most outrageously pornographic music videos with the most yawningly mediocre music. There’s precious little room left in that industry for talented people who just want to make great music but aren’t willing to take their clothes off while doing it. But I digress.)

In my humble opinion, the “open” space should be the world’s foremost exemplary showcase of tolerance. We should be models of “open”-mindedness. And we should be the most open-minded in our thinking about openness itself!

The idea advocated by groups like the Open Knowledge Definition or the Free Cultural Works crowd that there should be a litmus test for openness really bothers me. Deeply bothers me. What is the point of crying from the rooftops that some content is “Open in Name Only?” Why must we, the “open” folks, be in the business of ideological purging like the politicians? If someone has gone out of their way to waive some of the rights guaranteed them under the law so that they can share their creative works – even if that action is to apply a relatively restrictive CC BY-NC-ND to their content – why aren’t we praising that? Why aren’t we encouraging and cultivating and nurturing that? Why are we instead decreeing from a pretended throne on high, “Your licensing decision has been weighed in the balance, and has been found wanting. You are not deemed worthy.” Why the condescension? Why the closed-mindedness? Why the race to create machinery like definitions that give us the self-assumed authority to tell someone their sharing isn’t good enough?

Why isn’t the open crowd more open-minded?

And I have to ask… Has their really not been any useful intellectual advancement in this field since Richard Stallman enumerated the four freedoms (1986) and Bruce Perens laid out the Debian Free Software Guidelines (1997)? I think the last decade has shown that content is different from software in meaningful ways. (For example, there are no objective tests to tell whether or not modifications of a still image, video, piece of music, or essay have improved that creative work.) Clinging to statements of principle laid down for software (apples) to help us think about all other creative works (oranges, bananas, kiwis, etc.) ten or twenty years later just doesn’t make sense to me. By slightly reworking the four freedoms or the DFSG, statements like “Freedom Defined” and the “Open Knowledge Definition” seem both (1) unwilling to acknowledge the important differences between software and other creative works and (2) all too anxious to find ways to exclude people from the club and tell them they’re not good enough.

The original OpenContent License (1998) was a simple modification of the GPL. But within the year I felt that was a poor fit for content. The Open Publication License (1999) rethought some of these problems and took a new approach (laying the structural foundation for the Creative Commons licenses). And we’ve seen additional problems since the OPL was first released in 1999 and Creative Commons followed in 2001. My relatively recent statement on the definition of the open in open content takes another new approach to operationalizing the construct “open” – one that is informed by lessons I’ve learned in the last decade. It’s not a new license, but new thinking a decade later about a broad framework in which everyone who shares can locate their activity. It’s goal is not to exclude, but to include. It’s goal is not to arbitrarily declare what is good enough, but to describe the options available. It’s goal is to be open and inviting, not judgmental and standoffish.

I wish we could get over our innate need to feel superior to others by establishing frameworks that allow us to judge them as inferior (and yet, at some level, that’s what this post seems to be doing, isn’t it?). I wish those of us who associate ourselves with the open community would be more open in our thinking about many things… especially openness itself.

open content

The SA Fallacy: Open Knowledge Foundation Gets It Wrong

So, the OKF claim to define the open in open content. I’ve come to terms with the fact that few people actually read what I write. But that’s still no excuse for people coming along six years later (in 2004), co-opting my terminology, and then getting the definition wrong by 180 degrees. If they want to define the open in open knowledge, that’s their business. However, the definition of the open in open content is available at

The OKF blog is currently featuring a post called “Why Share-Alike Licenses are Open but Non-Commercial Ones Aren’t.” I’ve written about this ad nauseum (literally – I’m sick of it) in the past. But as I said above, apparently no one cares. So, for my personal therapeutic good feeling, I’ll make a brief commentary on the post.

“Share-alike or attribution requirements are allowed within the definition precisely because they do not break this interoperability.”

This is obviously, demonstrably, and 100% false. The share-alike requirements of the BY-SA and GFDL licenses are exactly what prohibit material shared under these licenses from interoperating. The interoperability-breaking nature of share-alike requirements is what forced Wikipedia to engage in what might be the largest relicensing of content in the history of humanity – changing its millions of pages of content from the GFDL to a CC license. This had to happen because share-alike requirements destroy interoperability with content licensed under similar (but different) licenses with share-alike requirements. Read that sentence again. I’ll wait for you. If share-alike requirements promote interoperability, I’ll eat hay with a horse. Share-alike requirements only promote interoperability of content using exactly the same license. Is that really anything to be proud of or write home about? Here I state the SA Fallacy:

  1. Share-alike requirements supposedly promote interoperability.
  2. Only content licensed under exactly the same share-alike requirement-bearing license is interoperable.
  3. Any two pieces of content licensed under exactly the same license would be interoperable even if that license didn’t have a share-alike requirement.
  4. THEREFORE, a share-alike requirement in a license does absolutely nothing to promote interoperability.

What is it, then, that share-alike requirements do? Nothing more than prevent a down-stream user from making her own choices about how to license the derivative works she creates. When authors adopt a share-alike license, they are saying: we value the freedom of content over the freedom of people. They are saying: we prefer (1) that all derivatives of our content remain “free” over the option of (2) giving people the “freedom” to choose how to license the derivative works they create. Share-alike requirements give authors a way to privilege bits and bytes above people.

“To reiterate: it is a mistake to view the set of licenses as some continuous spectrum of ‘openness’ with PD at one end and full rights reserved at the other — with the implication that all licenses in between are more or less open.”

No, this is not a mistake – it is a demonstrably accurate view of the real world. PD places no legal restrictions on would be users. CC BY places one restriction on users. CC BY-SA places two restrictions on users. CC BY-NC-SA places three restrictions on users. &c. In fact, the only reason to create more than one license is to mandate different degrees of restriction on people’s use of content.

The OKF argue that because they have defined open to mean one particular constellation of restrictions (including the restriction that prohibits content interoperability), there cannot be degrees of conformance with their mandate. You are not allowed to think about the world as it really is (many licenses falling along a wide spectrum of openness), you must conform your thinking to their alternate reality. However, their standard appears arbitrary (why are these restrictions acceptable while others aren’t?) and their standard does not promote the interoperability of content. And it certainly does not define the open in open content.