Notions of Openness

Joseph M Reagle Jr.

Abstract: Much research related to openness has typically relied upon an informal (and ostensive) definition: implicitly invoking many of the free and open source projects with which we are familiar. While openness has become increasingly popular we still possess only a fuzzy notion of this term. Why has no single theoretical model of openness become prevalent? Is it that this phenomenon has many features which appeal to different researchers? Is it that there is no consistent object of study? What is it that is open: the products, community, legal licensees, or some combination thereof? Or, are we speaking of the voluntariness, the innovation, the enabling technology, or a larger cultural trend? Perhaps the open and flexible character of these phenomena defies theoretical articulation? In this paper I will review attempts from the literature at defining openness in order to assess the features of interest and potential for a rigorous theoretical conceptualization.

1 Introduction

Much can be described as open. In fact, in the dictionary on my desk there are more than 50 senses of the word across its functions as an adjective, verb, and noun. Yet, the prevalence of the word in discussions about online communities is more than a coincidence. Despite its birth in a schism with the free-software movement, this contemporary notion of openness is seemingly the most prominent label of a novel phenomenon -- whose origin is now, for diplomatic reasons, often referred to as Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Perhaps the promiscuity of the word open is why it has transcended its origins as a way of describing software; open is now used to describe content (e.g., software and encyclopedias), communities, legal licenses, and larger cultural trends.

When I drafted an essay on open content communities (Reagle 2004) so as to provide a clear (and intensional) definition of such communities one of the few existing attempts to do the same was Tzouris' (2002) adoption of the notion of epistemic communities. If one considers the literature since Tzouris while also broadening the scope beyond community (e.g. models of production) one encounters notions such as open projects, publishing, innovation, systems, etc. In this paper I review usage of the term so as to get a sense of what people are attempting to denote and restate a definition for open content communities in light of that review.

2 Free Software and Open Source

What is often meant by the term open is a generalization from the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement. Communities marshaling themselves under these banners cooperatively produce, in public view, software, technical standards, or other content that is intended to be widely shared. Because so many notions of openness rely upon this seminal phenomenon, a brief review is provided.

The Free Software movement was begun by Richard Stallman at MIT in the 1980s. Previously, computer science operated within the scientific norm of collaboration and information sharing. When Stallman found it difficult to obtain the source code of a troublesome Xerox printer, he feared that the norms of freedom and openness were being challenged by a different, proprietary, conceptualization of information. To respond to this shift he created the GNU Project in 1984, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985 (Stallman 2005gp), and he authored the GNU General Public License in 1989.

The goal of the GNU Project was to create a free version of the UNIX computing environment with which many computer practitioners were familiar with, and even contributed to, but was increasingly being encumbered with proprietary claims. GNU is playful form of a recursive acronym: GNU is Not Unix. The computing environment was supposed to be similar to but independent of UNIX and include everything a user needed including an operating system kernel (e.g., Hurd) and common applications such as small utilities, text editors (e.g., EMACS) and software compilers (e.g,. GCC).

The FSF is now the principle sponsor of the GNU Project and focuses on administrative issues such as copyright licenses, policy, and funding issues; software development and maintenance is still an activity of GNU. The GPL is the FSF’s famous copyright license for “free software”; it ensures that the “freedom” associated with being able to access and modify software is maintained with the original software and its derivations. It has important safeguards, including its famous reciprocal provision: if you modify and distribute software obtained under the GPL license, your derivation also must be publicly accessible and licensed under the GPL.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds started development of Linux: a UNIX like operating system kernel, the core computer program that mediates between applications and the underlying hardware. While it was not part of the GNU Project, and differed in design philosophy and aspiration from the GNU’s kernel (Hurd), it was released under the GPL. While Stallman’s stance on “freedom” is more ideological, Torvalds approach is more pragmatic. Furthermore, other projects, such as the Apache web server, and eventually Netscape’s Mozilla web browser, were being developed in open communities and under similar licenses except that, unlike the GPL, they often permit proprietary derivations. With such a license, a company may take open source software, change it, and include it in their product without releasing their changes back to the community.

The tension between the ideology of free software and its other, additional, benefits led to the concept of Open Source in 1998. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) was founded when, “We realized it was time to dump the confrontational attitude that has been associated with ‘free software’ in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that motivated Netscape.” (OSI 2006) Since the open source label is intended to cover software and licenses beyond the GPL, they have developed a meta (more abstract) Open Source Definition (OSD) (OSI 1997) which defines openness as:

  1. Free redistribution
  2. Accessible source code Permits derived works
  3. Ensures the integrity of the author’s source code
  4. Prohibits discrimination against persons or groups
  5. Prohibits discrimination against fields of endeavor
  6. Prohibits NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) entanglements
  7. Ensures the license must not be specific to a product
  8. Ensures the license must not restrict other software
  9. Ensures the license must be technology-neutral

A copyright license which is found by OSI to satisfy these requirements will be listed as a OSI certified/approved license, including the GPL of course. (GNU has also specified a Free Software Definition (FSD) (Stallman 2005)).

The benefits of openness are not limited to the development of software. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) host the authoring of technical specifications that are publicly available and implemented by applications that must interoperably communicate over the Internet. For example, different Web servers and browsers should be able to work together using the technical specifications of HTML, which structures a Web page, and HTTP, which is used to request and send Web pages. The approach of these organizations is markedly different from the “big S” (e.g., ISO) standards organizations which typically predicate membership on nationality and often only provide specifications for a fee. Here, any individual (at the IETF) or organization (at the W3C), can participate if they can afford the conference or membership fees that help support the collaborative services (e.g. meeting venues and email and Web support.)

This model of openness has even extended to forms of cultural production beyond technical content. For example, the Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia and the Creative Commons provides licenses and community for supporting the sharing of texts, photos, and music. Lawrence Lessig (2004), a founder of Creative Commons, helped popularized the notion of openness in domains beyond software with his book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. So, ironically, the term free might yet be a contender for the moniker of the larger movement.

3 Notions of openness

Those using the term open are typically relying upon an informal and ostensive type of definition: implicitly invoking many of the FOSS project with which we might be familiar -- something like Linux or Mozilla. However, one of the most prominent (economic) conceptualizations of the phenomenon doesn't use the term open. Benkler (2002) identifies a commons-based peer production as an alternative to the property- and contract-based models of firms and markets. Individuals successfully collaborate on large-scale projects without market prices or managerial commands. Such production has the advantage of excelling at identifying and assigning human capital to information and cultural production, and there are substantial increasing returns with large clusters of potential contributors. The four novel attributes of networked informational economy that makes this possible are: these are public goods, there are low capital costs, the centrality of human capital (which yields many information gains), and the decline of communication costs (p. 34). This model of organization is likely sustainable when the work can be broken down into fine grained modules, and where the value of monetary return are small relative to the value of the hedonic and social-psychological rewards (p. 61). (von Hippel and von Krogh (2003) pose another economic explanation of FOSS in that they are public goods but one for which the producers do reap benefits and for which there is no such thing as free-riding consumers.)

Yet, to appreciate the power of the notion openness consider the following terms from literature; open is used to describe: source (democracy, intelligence), project, content (community), publishing, information community, innovation, and system.

Rushkoff (2003) employs the term open source in its most iconic sense: open source democracy does not identify a particular theory of openness but rather serves as a label for his manifesto on the possibilities of democracy as mediated by new technologies such as blogs. (Open source democracy is acting much like the term free culture except it focuses on civil discourse specifically.) In a similar way, Couldry (2003) considers the new ways of consuming, producing, and distributing media particularly the open publishing model of Indymedia, a network of news web sites produced by the readers.

Recalling Stallman's frustration in the closing of computer culture, it is interesting to note that some have turned to earlier discussions on the openness of science. In their analysis of an open project, the Debian Linux distribution, O'Mahony and Ferraro (2003) write, "Observers of the open source phenomena often compare the production and management of open source code to the 'open science' process of peer review … where work and method are critically evaluated with informed skepticism" (p. 3). (An example of earlier work on science includes Star's (1993) consideration of scientific theories and workplaces as open systems when they process information in a dynamic, asynchronous, decentralized, and heterogeneous way.)

Aigrain (2004) coins the term open information communities to cover communities such as the Wikipedia, the Slashdot technical news community, and Web sites using the SPIP free co-operative publishing software. He adopts Benkler to further argue that the lowering of transaction costs for becoming an active contributor is an essential factor for their success.

Stadler and Hirsh (2002) use the nettime mailing list, the Wikipedia and the NoLogo Web as cases of this "emerging phenomenon" and harken back to the particulars of FOSS to defineopen source intelligence as "the application of collaborative principles developed by the Open Source Software movement to the gathering and analysis of information. These principles include: peer review, reputation- rather than sanctions-based authority, the free sharing of products, and flexible levels of involvement and responsibility."

The "free sharing of products" is, not surprisingly, a common constituent in notions of openness. In their study of the IETF, Waguespack and Fleming (2004) specify an open innovation community "as a group of unpaid volunteers who worked informally, seek to distribute their efforts into the public domain, and ensure that all proceedings remain available to the public" (p. 5). However, some members of such communities participate as part of their paid jobs. Contributors in the FOSS community who demonstrate their leadership and development skills are often hired by companies who feel that the project's future success is in their own commercial interests. For many contributors to the IETF, their activities are part of their job responsibilities. Additionally, the term "public domain" as used here is not appropriate as most all of the content provided under a license (open or otherwise) is therefore not in the "public domain," in the strict legal sense. Unfortunately, confusion about free and open software licenses and the public domain are common.

Many of the constituents of Waguespack and Fleming's definition are also present in Cedergren's (2003) definition of open content which is intended to include the Open Directory Project, Wikipedia, and Rick Perlinger's digital movie archive. He writes, "In this paper, open content is defined as content produced not-for-profit - often collectively - with the intentional purpose of making content available for further distribution and improvement by others at no cost." Here, it is interesting to note that the implication of a product being in the "public" is that it is possible for improvement, not simply use, which is a common -- though not required -- motivation of FOSS contributors. Unfortunately, this definition, too, falls short. While such content is often produced for reasons other than profit, a profit motive -- nor actual profits -- are precluded. The FSF has long said making money from free software is appropriate: "Does the GPL allow me to sell copies of the program for money? Yes, the GPL allows everyone to do this. The right to sell copies is part of the definition of free software" (FSF 2006).

4 The constituents of openness

Many of the preceding notions of openness attempt to generalize the essential characteristics of the FOSS phenomenon beyond software code. However, some of the abstractions -- be they to prose, community, or even the larger culture -- tend to be particular to the authors' literature (e.g., innovation) or to specific features with which they are concerned (e.g., voluntary). However, in total, one can discern three shared features common to most that permits one to characterize openness as an accessible and flexible type of collaboration whose result may be widely shared:

  1. participation: lowering the transaction costs to become an active contributor (Aigrain 2004); "flexible levels of involvement" (Stadler and Hirsh 2002); "unpaid volunteers who worked informally" (Waguespack and Fleming 2004:5)
  2. collaboration: "peers-based collaboration" (Benkler 2002); "work and method are critically evaluated" (O'Mahony and Ferraro 2003:3); peer-reviewed, reputation ... based authority" (Stadler and Hirsh 2002); "often collectively" (Cedergren 2003)
  3. sharing: "free sharing of products" (Stadler and Hirsh 2002); "distribute their efforts into the public domain" (Waguespack and Fleming 2004:5); "available for further distribution and improvement by others" (Cegergren 2003)

However, just as we are served by having explicit definitions such as the Open Source Definition (OSI 2006) and Free Software Definition (Stallman 2005), we might benefit from a rigorous definition for the communities that produce this content. For example, an individual, a "cabal," a group led by a "dictator," or, even, a proprietary company can produce a product under a license that satisfies the Open Source Definition. But we would not think this to be open in the way that the preceding definitions seem to be reaching for.

Consequently, the notion of an open content community (Reagle 2004) does seem merited. Such a community delivers or demonstrates:

1) Open products: provides products which are available under licenses like those that satisfy the Open Source Definition.

2) Transparency: makes its processes, rules, determinations, and their rationales available.

3) Integrity: ensures the integrity of the processes and the participants' contributions.

4) Non-discrimination: prohibits arbitrary discrimination against persons, groups, or characteristics not relevant to the community's scope of activity. Persons and proposals should be judged on their merits. Leadership should be based on meritocratic or representative processes.

5) Non-interference: the linchpin of openness, if a constituency disagrees with the implementation of the previous three criteria, the first criteria permits them to take the products and commence work on them under their own conceptualization without interference. While "forking" is often complained about in open communities -- it can create some redundancy/inefficiency -- it is an essential characteristic and major benefit of open communities as well.

While the first criteria provides a "bright line" with which one can distinguish between open products and their licenses, the social criteria of transparency, integrity, and nondiscrimination do not provide for an equally clear demarcation. (What counts as open or free content has not always been an easy question either, but at least we now have stable definitions to rely upon here.) Indeed, a common behavior of an open community is the self-reflexive discourse of what it means to be open on difficult boundary cases. Consequently, I would argue that a test of an open community is if a constituency that is dissatisfied with results of such a discussion can fork (relocate) the work elsewhere. Additionally, while the often voluntary character of the community is not explicitly articulated in my conceptualization, it is important to note that, "The openness of these communities is perhaps dominant in describing the character of the organization, though the voluntariness is critical to understanding the moral/ideological light in which many of the members view their participation" (Reagle 2004).

However, it is important to note that the specified criteria for an open content community would not include the broader phenomena. Communities such as those found at the IETF, W3C, Slashdot or on many blogs do not produce content that are available under licensees that would strictly qualify as open/free. (While many of licenses governing such content permit wide access, they often prohibit changes and derivations.) To include such communities the first criteria of "open products" would have to relaxed to include content which is publicly available, but not changeable by others.

5 Conclusion

Unlike the open or free software definitions (i.e., OSD/FSD), I don't expect a notion of openness to be used as a test of the community. While the software definitions are used for prescriptive purposes, such as finding bugs in licenses, determining license compatibilities, or infrastructural support (e.g., SourceForge only hosts products that are under licenses that satisfy the OSD) a notion of an open community can still be worthwhile. First, as the literature shows, there is a need to speak of such a community. Second, misunderstandings about the motives, voluntary and public character of such communities are common. The adoption and development of a well articulated definition of an open content community certainly merits further discussion among those interested in this phenomenon.

6 References cited

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