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Notions of openness

Joseph Reagle


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Enough already

"What's with 'open' in the name of all these projects. Is anyone really impressed by that anymore?" -- tomstdenis, OS Virtualization Interview, Slashdot, April 19, 2006.


  1. Openness' heritage
  2. Notions of openness
  3. Openness' constituents
  4. A possible definition
  5. Implications

Openness' heritage

"Open" is often a generalization from the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement.

Licenses which satisfy the Open Source Definition (OSD) (OSI 1997) permit free redistribution and derivation; protects author integrity; prohibits discrimination against persons, groups, or fields of endeavor, and NDAs; is not specific to a product, does not restrict other software, and is technology-neutral.

Openness' ubiquity

Open is used to qualify: source (democracy, intelligence), project, content (community), publishing, information community, innovation, and system.

Open project

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.)

Open source democracy

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.)

Open source intelligence

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."

Open innovation community

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).


Open content

Cedergren's (2003) definition of open content, is intended to include the Open Directory Project, Wikipedia, and Rick Perlinger's digital movie archive: "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.",



One can discern three common features that permits one to characterize openness as an accessible and flexible type of collaboration whose result may be widely shared:

, , , , , , , 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)

, , , , , , , 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)

, , , , , , , 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)

Open content community

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 often voluntary character of the community is not explicitly articulated in my conceptualization, it is critical to understanding the moral/ideological light in which many of the members view their participation.

However, this last notion of openness would not include the broader phenomena. Communities such as those found on blogs or Slashdot, and those, at the IETF or W3C produce content that are not available under open/free license definitions.

To include such communities the first criteria of "open products" would have to be relaxed to include content which is publicly available, but not changeable by others.


The adoption and development of a well articulated definition of an open content community certainly merits further discussion.



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