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.