Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Is OER Actually Open? Gratis Vs Libre (republished)

This post is taken from my old blog, and republished here. It's a worthy read though :-)

I've written intro posts to OER before here; I've written in slightly more detail visualising OER and liking openness to a dimmer switch; and I've even questioned whether OER is mainstreamed and sustainable.

However recently, the debate (if it is a debate) of 'Gratis' Vs 'Libre' in openness is gathering momentum. Admittedly I had to look up the meanings, but wikipedia does a useful job at distinguishing;
Gratis versus libre is the distinction between two meanings of the English adjective "free"; namely, "for zero price" (gratis) and "with little or no restriction" (libre). The ambiguity of "free" can cause issues where the distinction is important, as it often is in dealing with laws concerning the use of information, such as copyright and patents.

There is a definite difference between the two here, which have implications for OER. The real debate I want to consider is one that has been surfacing for some time, suggesting for something to be open, it should have no restrictions at all.

Stephen Downes initially identified that while 'open' may mean 'without cost', it does not mean 'without conditions'. He went on to suggest that 'open' should mean 'completely free' and even a sign-up/registration represents 'some sort of opportunity cost on the part of the user, an exchange rather than sharing' (Downes 2007, p32).

Supporters of this 'Open = Completely Free' argument suggest that OERs licensed with Creative Commons aren't really open if the Non-Commercial or Attribution conditions (for example) are present, as inherently they are 'costing' or 'restricting' the user in one way or another.

I don't pretend to be of a standing to challenge the intellect of Downes (who is?), and I actually agree that even a sign-up represents an opportunity cost, but things just aren't as cut and dry as this. Content isn't just open or closed, just like a dimmer switch for a light isn't simply on or off. There are varying degrees of 'on-ness', just as there are various degrees of 'openness'.
This is what my earlier post aimed to identify and somewhat explore. I also think that is the essence of what the Gratis Vs Libre concept is about. Neither is 'right' or 'wrong'. The tools we use, where we place the published output (and how people get to it), and the licensing we apply to that output, all impact on the degree to which an object is open, and each object will be more or less open than the next (as the two diagrams here attempt to visualise). David Wiley has picks up on Cable Green's recent frustrated email, and relates the free vs open concept to the frenzy of MOOCs. They're open.... to a degree. They might not be the easiest to pick up and reuse/remix how I see fit, but they're not completely closed.

I appreciate that there is more going on in this debate than just education, but as that's my experience I'll focus on it here.

Academics are (or at least should be) familiar with citing existing sources. Essentially, the attribution element of Creative Commons is just that. Perhaps not even as complex and therefore, not really a barrier preventing (re)use. The wider understanding of open licensing can be confusing (as I highlighted in a recent work), but  perhaps CC BY actually appeals to academics because of this academic-related activity (just a thought).

The non-commercial attribute (CC BY-NC) isn't a major factor effecting a large part of the education sector either, as much of our work isn't classed as income generation activity. Where it does impact though, is more enterprising initiatives within edu that are 'for-profit', or of course, full-on commercial organisations. I presume it is only these branches that are quashing the role of CC, because otherwise I don't see what the problem is. Reuse, on a 'not-quite-completely-open' agenda is fine with me. And it's fine with many of the staff new to reusing existing content. To us, such resources are indeed, still open. To the commercial sectors, not so open though. So this demonstrates that Openness is very much context-dependant.

Further to all of this, I wonder if there is an ethical issue related to selling a product that largely contains other people's work. An image, perhaps. A backing track, maybe. But I certainly wouldn't feel comfortable reusing a significant amount of content, whacking my company logo on and making a fortune off it. On the flip side, how would you feel if you released a piano/guitar piece of music with no restrictions, which Simon Cowell then went and splashed some X-Factor winner's vocals over and made Christmas No. 1 (making millions in the process)? Would you say, 'fair game, they can do what they like with it', or would you say, 'I want a piece of that fortune'? I wouldn't blame you if you did!

I suppose that's why I automatically reach for the NC badge. So I suppose to some degree, I portray my own expectations of reuse on the work I create, through CC. Is that such a bad thing?

One challenge I suspect might surface as HE evolves, is in treating students more as consumers/customers (yes, I hate it too). Perhaps Institutions will react to the 'student-as-consumer' model and act more like commercial businesses. This will present more challenges to non-commercial uses of CC licensed work, especially as they look to more income generation activities as a means to bring in some of the money have lost through changes in fee structure as well as fewer student numbers. Or, perhaps the licensing needs to adapt with the changing times? Who knows?

So which camp do you sit in? Are you happy with the 'open-but-some-restriction' model of using Creative Commons, or do you think there should be no restrictions at all? Do you think evolution will render NC redundant in education? How much do you like Simon Cowell (or indeed, the X-Factor)?


Downes, S. (2007) Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects. 3 pp. 29-44.

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The Reed Diaries by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License

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