Tuesday, September 03, 2013

There Was No Richard Stallman for Open Educational Resources, and There's Nothing To Be Done About It Now

SNAFUs and misunderstandings around open licensing seem to be more pervasive and persistent in the content realm than in software. No doubt this is partly because software is especially well suited to the concept, since it is both a textual expression and a practical tool, and the tool utility of free software offers a constant reminder of the value you gain from the free use of everybody else's contribution.

But another difference is that there was no Richard Stallman figure in open content. That is, someone brilliant, detail oriented and obsessive who was decades ahead of the curve on the issue. And capable of personally creating canonical practical examples of open content or educational resources. The equivalent would have been if an economics professor had come up with the full economic model of free and open source development as we understand it today, written the definitive text on the subject and freely licensed it, and written a full freely licensed text on IP law that was eventually adopted by many top law schools and almost all of the rest, and written an Econ 101 text book that was widely excerpted in the standard texts of many other major publishers.

And all that is well underway before almost anyone else is talking about the issue at all.

That is to say, the entire conversation for decades is on the very rigorous, if somewhat eccentric, terms laid out by one person. That's pretty much what happened in free software, and while everyone does not love Richard Stallman, the software world would be very different without his contributions. Without Stallman, I would have had to read a lot more blog posts by software developers who were upset about how their software was being redistributed.


Stephen Downes said...

Stallman crystallized the debate, but there was open source software before him. It was actually common practice, and Stallman (who was in a good position at Berkeley) appropriated the concept and defined it his own way.

Stephen Downes said...

And (while I'm commenting) there *is* a Stallman of open content, and that's Lawrence Lissig. Again, the concept had been around before him, but he crystallized the debate and frames it his own way.

I've argued before that this is a common practice, where someone from the US-elite-uni nexus appropriates a widely held concept and redefines it in a commercial-friendly way.

Tom Hoffman said...

There was open source before Stallman, but my understanding is that he was interested in the theory and principles of the licenses far ahead of others. The FSF predates the OSI by 13 years, which I guess is not literally decades, but it is a long time in internet years.

And I wouldn't say that Stallman simply appropriated the existing practice, because copyleft was completely novel as far as I know, and essential to FOSS as we know it.

Also, Stallman redefined the practice in a way that has clearly been effective in leveraging commercial contributions for the common good, which has been much more effective than any similar attempts to simply block off commercial actors.

Lessig isn't in the same category because he isn't nearly as opinionated as Stallman. He's happy to actively support a variety of licenses and approaches, and anyone who was around at the time knew he was very much stepping into and crystallizing an active debate.

Tom Hoffman said...

Timing is key to my point, because the GPL and other theoretical groundwork had to be ready and well established *before* open source software took off in practice. By that time the debates, while heated, were constrained to a relatively small range of more or less compatible alternatives. If the theory is being hashed out on the fly, you're more likely to end up with the kind of mess we have in open content.