Are you: free / open / none of the above ?

Where I tinker with the notions of open and free: how are they different? how do they overlap?

Do we need a definition of ‘open’?

Last week in #whyopen, we reflected on the meaning of open as it relates to our lives and practise. After discussing our views on various online platforms, we asked ourselves whether we should try to define openness or leave the definition open.

On this issue, I agree with Pat Lockley who says:

Defining is hard, as we have come to realise during last week’s exercise. Yet, most of us in the discussion felt that we needed to come to a common understanding of the term ‘open’ so as to be able to rally around it. If we have no clear benchmark for what open is, how can anyone decide if something is open or otherwise?

Defining ‘open’ sounds all the more crucial that we are confronted with arguments raging back and forth between free culture and open culture.

Free is absolute

Comparing two possible definitions of free content and open content, I find ‘free’ more uncompromising a label than ‘open’. Whereas an artifact is either free or not free, it can be more or less open.

Open is a more flexible concept, that allows for a continuum of positions within the realm of openness:

Content is open to the extent that its license allows users to engage in the 4R activities [4R: reuse, revise, remix, redistribute]. Content is less open to the extent that its license places restrictions (e.g., forbidding derivatives or prohibiting commercial use) or requirements (e.g., mandating that derivatives adopt a certain license or demanding attribution to the original author) on a user’s ability to engage in the 4R activities.

This difference is clearly spelt out on the Free cultural works wiki:

We discourage you to use other terms to identify Free Cultural Works which do not convey a clear definition of freedom, such as “Open Content” and “Open Access.” These terms are often used to refer to content which is available under “less restrictive” terms than those of existing copyright laws, or even for works that are just “available on the Web”.

Is free the extreme end of open, the most radical stance? Conversely, is openness a diluted version of free culture?

Differing ideologies

In an interview with Forbes, free software advocate Richard Stallman posed an ideological grounding for free culture which is opposed to the more pragmatic approach he attributes to the proponents of open source:

Where we differ from the proponents of open source is in what those goals are. The open source viewpoint cites only practical-convenience goals, such as making software powerful and reliable. Our primary goals are freedom and community. We appreciate convenience too, of course, but we do not put that above freedom.

So, essentially, open source people are sell-outs who abandoned the fight for freedom in favour of … convenience!

I’m not sure that everybody championing openness fits the portrait of practically-minded people with not an idealist’s bone in them. Both open source and free software advocates strive against proprietary software: they just don’t agree on the means to do that or indeed on the priorities of the movement.

This is as far as I’ve gone in my reflection on open vs. free. Admittedly a bit scant, but I hope I’ll be able to deepen my reflection as the days go by and the discussion progresses.


12 thoughts on “Are you: free / open / none of the above ?

  1. Hey, thanks for commenting on my blog – and I enjoyed reading your post.

    I’m not a big fan of David Wiley’s definition of ‘open’. Whereas the free cultural definition is the non-software ‘equivalent’ of the free software definition, Wiley’s open definition is not the ‘equivalent’ of the open source definition.

    That’s because the open source definition is just as strict as the free software definition, whereas Wiley’s open definition is much looser than the free cultural definition. That’s one reason why I prefer the OKFN’s open definition:

    I discuss the free/open gap a bit more starting from line 163 of A Free, Libre and Open Glossary, if you’re interested:

    • Hello Sanglorian and thank you for visiting !

      I am indeed interested enough to read the paragraph on ‘the free/open divide’ as well as the Open Knowledge Foundation’s definition of open! My position is definitely closer to OKF’s than to David Wiley’s here.

      Going back to my initial questions about overlap and differences between open and free, it will obviously depend on which definition we adopt for ‘open’. In this post, I had focused on David Wiley’s. Using OKF’s definition, we would find no difference between open and free for cultural works, since the 4 basic freedoms are guaranteed under both frameworks. Am I right?

      The divide line seems to be purely ideological then, as you point out in your book: emphasis on ethical values such as freedom and community on the one hand, focus on marketing and efficiency on the other.

      Somehow, even this difference is questionable: many proponents of ‘open’ will cite ethical values such as freedom as their purpose to engage in open activities and communities. We could take examples from the survey carried out for this class or quote the vision put forward by the Open Knowledge Foundation: [thanks for pointing that out in A Free, Libre and Open Glossary, good point].

      In the end, is there even a difference between free and open for non-software works?

  2. I am very interested in this discussion, as I stopped my last blog post before really getting into one thing I wanted to think further about–specific differences between things that people call “free” and things that people call “open.” Are there significant differences, or is it mostly a matter of using different terms? And if the latter, why choose one term over another? Is there something about the words themselves that evokes importantly different meanings? So anyway, I plan to get to this post at some point this week!

    I’m curious, sanglorian, how Wiley’s definition is less strict than the free software or the open source definition. I actually thought of them as very similar when I wrote my blog post, just that one of them collapses two elements and another collapses two different elements. But I may be missing something important! Here’s the post: (see the first paragraph under “libre with or without gratis.” Here’s what I wrote there: “the four freedoms of the FSF [Free Software Foundation] and of Wiley’s “open content” are very similar; it’s just that Wiley makes a separate category for “remix,” or putting content together with other content to make something new, and the FSF separates distribution of the original and of revised versions into two categories.” I didn’t see the FSF one as being more strict, so I’m curious how that might be, what I missed!

    And I agree, Laila, that the ideological distinction doesn’t seem to hold, at least outside of software. Many proponents of “open” do focus on ethical concerns. It may be that that distinction is mostly relevant between “free software” and “open source software” communities? Just a guess.

    • Hi Christina,

      The key difference between Wiley’s definition and that of the FSF is that Wiley will put the label ‘open content’ on anything that at least partially satisfies even one of the four ‘Rs’. By contrast, the FSF strictly requires the work to totally satisfy all four of the freedoms.

      Wiley uses the analogy of an eye: an eye that is even a little open is ‘open’. By contrast, a prisoner that is a little free (in minimum security not solitary confinement, for example) is not ‘free’.

      My preference is to apply ‘open’ as strictly as ‘freedom’ – but Wiley disagrees.

      • We do have a semantic problem here: there is open and open. One kind of open (Wiley’s) allows for approximations, for a continuum of openness, while the other kind of open (OKF’s) means strictly the same as free in the sense of libre.

        There’s the light-dimming switch (light variation) and the classic switch (on/off). They’re in the same category of tools but not the same tool, yet we keep calling them by the same name, thus spreading confusion. We always end up asking ourselves which kind of switch we’re talking about.

        That’s why I’m interested in adopting Free/Libre/Open (FLO). Paradoxically, it complicates things to clarify them. It needs a critical mass to be accepted and understood though.

        Also, what do we call the other kind of open then? Does it retain the label ‘open’ ?

      • The light switch is a good analogy.

        You’re right that FLO complicates things to clarify them, but I think listing synonyms to define a term is actually well accepted in English. There are a lot of English legal terms, like ‘null and void’, that use synonyms to remove ambiguity.

        I wouldn’t call Wiley’s open ‘open’. I see three other useful terms, none of which are quite synonyms of Wiley’s open, but all of which overlap:

        Public copyright licence/Works under public copyright licences: Licences where the licensees are unlimited. In other words, anyone can make use of the content for whatever purpose the licence provides.

        This includes all FLO licences, but not all FLO works. Why? Because some FLO works are FLO because they are in the public domain, not because they’re under a particular licence.

        Shareable content: Works that can be shared and adapted, at least verbatim noncommercially, by any person.

        This includes all currently supported CC licences.

        Some rights reserved: Works that are covered by some copyright restrictions, but not all of them. This excludes no rights reserved works, which Wiley’s open content includes.

  3. Sorry–the above was meant as a reply to Sanglorian’s comment clarifying how Wiley’s “open content” definition is less strict than the FSF’s view of free software. That isn’t clear in my comment.

    I also wanted to ask how the “public copyright license” idea suggested above is different from the “shareable license” that would cover CC. The former says it would allow people to use it for whatever purpose the license provides, but this seems similar to, perhaps, a CC-NC license that allows you to use something for any purpose so long as it’s not commercial. I think I’m missing something!

    • Hi Christina,

      The public copyright licence is broader. For example, the CC Sampling licence only allowed people to adapt the work, but not share it verbatim. It is a public copyright licence, but it doesn’t meet the threshold of a shareable content licence because it doesn’t allow verbatim copying.

      The CC BY-NC licence, on the other hand, is a public copyright licence and a shareable copyright licence.

      Public domain content, however, is shareable content but not under a public copyright licence. (Unless it’s under a licence that makes it public domain!)

      Hope this helps!

      • Thanks for the explanation. The easiest way to explain this would be to visualise it in a diagram showing overlaps and examples of conditions falling into each category.

        I am still reluctant to agree with you to say that Wiley’s ‘open’ isn’t really open. Let’s say his definition doesn’t fit with what I want ‘open’ to mean. Thing is, nobody owns the term and it is forged as it is used: if people think of open along the lines of what David Wiley is proposing, that’s what open will end up meaning and it will be a waste of time and energy to go preach on what some of us consider to be “really open”. We’ll need to come up with another term for what we envision (libre; free; FLO etc).

        Isn’t it what your work already reflects though, Sanglorian?

      • Hey hardcorekancil,

        “I am still reluctant to agree with you to say that Wiley’s ‘open’ isn’t really open.”

        I think I’m more militant than you are! ‘Open source’ and ‘open knowledge’ are terms of art, so I think it’s fair enough to insist that ‘open’ is used in way that is compatible with those terms.

        For example, you say we need to come up with another term for what we envision – like libre. But the term ‘libre open access’ is now being used by some people to describe open access that is some rights reserved. So the term libre is being bastardised too!

        While it’s true that the term is forged as it is used, I take that as further evidence that we need to insist on the term being used in certain ways. Why forfeit the chance to forge the word into a useful one that suits our purposes?


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