Why Use a Free / Open License?

Why would anyone want to publish anything under an `open' or `free' license? Isn't that like taking all your hard work---not to mention your ``intellectual property''---and just giving it away? Worse, any schmuck can come along and change anything he wants in your work and then distribute it as his own!!

First, let's clear the air about one thing: open licenses depend on copyright laws and protections. Without copyright, there could be no `open content' or open licenses. Publishing something under an open license is not the same as putting the work in the public domain. The author of the work retains copyright of the work. He / She uses the restrictiveness of regular copyright to grant the recipient of the work (the reader) privileges they would not have under regular copyright and also impose additional restrictions that balance the privileges. If the reader does not accept the restrictions, the whole deal is off and the reader can just read the book / magazine / whatever as if it were a regular copyrighted work.

Although the details vary from license to license, the privileges usually involve allowing the reader to freely redistribute the work and often allowing the reader to modify the work. The restrictions involve the license itself---while free to modify or distribute the work, the reader is not allowed to change the license under which the work is distributed.

Sounds confusing, so here is an example: Joe writes ``Joe's Guide to Wine'' and publishes it on the Internet under an open license. Ann downloads it from Joe's web site and likes it so much that she wants to send a copy to everyone in her local wine club. No problem, the open license allows free redistribution. Steve is in Ann's wine club and gets a copy of ``Joe's Guide to Wine''. He decides to print out the book and sell copies to fellow wine enthusiasts. To maximize his income, Steve decides to leave out the license, hoping everyone will assume that the book is sold under the regular rules of copyright. Selling the work is not a problem. It costs Steve (or anyone else) money to print and bind ``Joe's Guide to Wine'', and under most open licenses, people are free to sell the book for as much as they like. This is okay with Joe, because as long as the book is freely distributable, anyone who charges too much for it can easily be under sold. The free publicity Joe gets as a result of someone selling his work is a nice bonus, but has no connection one way or the other to Joe's copyright or the license.

The real problem with Steve's actions is that as a condition of allowing Steve to distribute his guide, Joe---the holder of the copyright on the work---requires that the license stay. Steve can sell the work, but he has to allow everyone who gets it from him the same freedoms and restrictions that applied to him. So if Kim gets a copy from Steve, even if she paid money for it, she has the same rights and obligations as if she had gotten a free copy straight from Joe---she can copy and even sell copies of ``Joe's Guide to Wine''.

Notice that Joe is still very much in charge of his work. He cannot prevent distribution or copying (if he was interested in doing so, he would never have published under an open license) but he can make sure that all copying and distribution are done on his terms. Thus the copyright monopoly is used to enforce the freedom to distribute.

So what are the benefits of allowing people to copy and distribute your work? Wide exposure for starters. For many people having as many readers as possible is more important than trying to maximize their income from that particular work. For amateur writers or musicians trying to get famous (and a nice deal with a publishing company), making content freely available on the Internet is one more way to gain an audience. Educators also can benefit---sharing course notes, readings, and even textbooks can not only save everyone a lot of money, but can also reduce a teacher's workload.

There are many ways that an author can allow anyone to copy and distribute their work but still make money. Most have yet to be tested, it is true, but no doubt enterprising capitalists will find a few that will work. Stephen King tried an honor system method that grossed him a few hundred thousand dollars. In free software circles, a few companies are trying out variations of the Street Performer Protocol.

Money aside for the moment, where `free to distribute' really shines, though, is when it is teamed with `free to modify'. Writing a novel by committee will probably never be a good idea, but novels are only a small part of the world's content. Textbooks, non-fiction works such as encyclopedias, technical manuals, magazines of just about any sort, and of course software all are prime candidates for an open style of development.

Modification could be anything from someone correcting a spelling mistake to someone contributing an entire chapter. Whatever form the modification takes, the effect is that the reader is no longer just the reader, but also a potential contributor. This is much more than just semantics. With the Internet making near-instantaneous, worldwide communication normal and cheap, reader as contributor is a paradigm shift on par with the rise of the scientific method or the development of the printing press.

If you think I am exaggerating, look into the history of the Free Software Foundation, the Linux operating system, and the current situation in the IT world. Linux is an open-source operating system started by one man in Finland (he is in America now). He released it on the Internet and invited suggestions. The Linux operating system combined with the software developed by the FSF and many others who share their ideals, has created a software package that is killing off the older Unix's and is giving Microsoft a run for their money on servers. Many people believe that in a few years all versions of UNIX will have given way to Linux, and that only Linux and MS Windows will remain. In short, it is having a profound affect on the computer world, in part because one man decided to allow others to freely copy and modify his original source code.

With a little thought, it is not surprising that `open content' (known in the computer world as `open source') should have started and made a huge impact first in the computer world, among computer programmers. Computer source code is the perfect candidate for open content development. Source code is turned into a program and that program is expected to do certain things. There are fewer grey areas in computer programming than in writing a textbook. If the program crashes, obviously something is wrong. Things are not so cut-and-dried with textbooks or scholarly papers.

Back to modifications. Many open licenses allow anyone to make modifications and to distribute the modified work. This is perhaps the aspect of `open' that is most worrisome to authors. Sure, it is one thing for a group of people to work together to create or maintain some huge project, but what do we do about Joe Cretin out there who is just waiting to deface our work and then spam the world with it? Can't he make insidious little changes---a few strategically placed `not's here and there in the work perhaps---and cause us all sorts of problems?

A related concern is that even if someone makes serious, meaningful changes, won't people get confused with two or three or ten different versions of a book, all saying different things?

There is no need to worry about these things. First, they are not limited to open content works. Everyone has seen doctored photos on the Internet. That is nothing. More than one person has been caught influencing markets with fake press releases. One man was caught modifying news articles on a major Internet site. Big companies have more than once sent out computer software that was infected by viruses at the factory. These are all manifestations of the concerns expressed above. Malicious or unauthorized modification is a fact of life, on the Internet at least. An open license is not a factor.

It is true though that with an open license the author is inviting modifications. So it should be no surprise that a good license balances that freedom with the need for the original author to be credited with what he / she wrote but protected from what someone else added later. Usually the derivative work must be clearly labeled as such, perhaps even with a totally different title. Changes must be clearly described---usually in a section or chapter named ``changes''. Like every other part of the license, this one too is enforced through regular copyright laws.

Who is going to want to make changes to your work? Most likely, people who have an interest in and some knowledge of the topic. Of course there is no guarantee of this, but most people have better things to do than make changes to a document in which they have no interest. Fewer still would bother distributing the document to anyone. They would rather spend their time doing something they are interested in. This still leaves a lot of room for knowledgeable, interested people to change your work, but most will be playing by the same rules and not making meaningless or harmful changes. Worst that happens, someone with a different viewpoint rewrites portions of your work to make a derivative work that expresses their views, or perhaps just includes some ideas that you decided not to include. As long as they rename it and explain their changes, no problem.

Okay, so using an open license isn't the same as selling your soul or signing a blank check. The question still remains though, why would anyone want to use an open license?

This article should already have given a glimpse of some possible reasons, but let's reverse the question: why would someone publish under a traditional ``it's mine, all mine'' license? Money really is the big reason, with desire for rightful credit perhaps a close second depending on the person. The whole idea of copyright is to foster the creation of works (thus enriching society) by allowing the author and only the author to profit from those works, for a limited time. Money.

Is money the reason that most scholars publish? No. Stephen King needs to sell books in order to have an income. So it makes sense that he wants to do just that, sell books. Scholars, like programmers, are different---their income does not depend totally on selling their work. (Most programmers are paid for in-house non-commercial programming). Scholars publish in order to share their findings / research / thoughts with their peers. Also, they publish to further their careers, the dreaded publish-or-perish, or more charitably peer recognition. Money is nice of course, but unlike Stephen King, few scholars could live off the income from their books or journal articles.

How many copies of important works are available 20 years after their publication? Very few. A handful might still be in print, but most are available only in libraries and only in limited quantities. Thus the fight for books and journal articles that graduate students are all familiar with. ``Mine all mine'' publishing is a guarantee that in a few years no one will be able to get your work.

Availability is one reason to choose an open license. Here is another good reason to allow modifications---linguistic availability. Translating your work from say English into Russian might sound difficult and possibly boring, but someone somewhere might feel the itch to do it. Then your work is available for Russian speakers as well as English speakers.

The ability to continually update a work with the latest theories, findings, facts, etc. is another important factor in choosing an open license over a more restrictive one. If nothing else, after a few years there won't be a single factual or spelling typographical error anywhere in the document. At best, imagine a continually updated encyclopedia that is totally free. No costly updates every few years, eating away at the library budget. No expensive updates that are out-of-date before you even get them.

The benefits to a middle school or high school of open content textbooks, developed by high-school teachers and college professors, are obvious. The same is true for many or most college course books. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars a year on textbooks, incoming students could receive a year's worth of texts on a five dollar CD. Teachers wouldn't have to deal with minor changes made by the publishing company to last year's textbook.

The benefits of an open license, at least for scholars and educators, are self-evident. Scholarship and education are not about property rights or profit. They are about the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, something that the Internet facilitates like no other invention in human history. That is why I set up openhistory.org and that is why I publish the Japanese History Documentation Project under an open license.

Copyright Notice

This page is Copyright ©2001--2003 Chris Spackman

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled ``GNU Free Documentation License''.