We throw around the word ‘open’ quite a bit these days. Occasionally we try to be clear about our use. We all know ‘open’ is good, but we don’t all mean the same thing when we say it.
Sometimes we think of ‘open’ as being transparent (in terms of public processes/participation), impartial (non-proprietary), available (easily accessed), and without restrictions. Sometimes it also means free. XML and TCP/IP are examples with all these characteristics. But not all ‘open’ things have all of those characteristics – or even any of them.
Open doesn’t always mean free. Even ‘free’ doesn’t always mean ‘free’. The Free Software Foundation defines Free Software by saying “think ‘free’ as in ‘free speech’, not as in ‘free beer’.” Their definition is silent on cost, except to say that you may have to pay for free software and, whether or not you did, you are free to charge others for it. When ‘open’ does mean ‘free’ it is often said to be “free like a puppy.” Many of us can’t begin to calculate just how much free puppies cost (though I did learn, during my recent free puppy experience that replacing gnawed seatbelts costs $350 each).
Many uses of the word ‘open’ have very specific meanings.
Open system can refer to software which can interact via publicly available interfaces, but is not itself necessarily ‘open’.
Open source is a set of principles for software, primarily indicating that the source code is freely available and manipulable. It can be free or sold. Redistribution of modifications is allowed (but sometimes there are qualifications).
Open content describes published creative works that explicitly allow copying and modification of the information. It may or may not allow commercial redistribution. It may be monetarily free, but still have restrictions.
There is a difference between public domain content and that covered by an ‘open license’. Public domain content is free in both senses: no cost and no restrictions (though there are ethical constrictions, such as those relating to plagiarism or forgery). Even public domain content can be incorporated in products or services and then licensed or sold for a fee and accompanied by restrictions.
There are many types of ‘open licenses‘.
Works under Creative Commons licenses can be redistributed, but there may be some requirements: attribution; no alteration/derivations; restrictions on derivations; and commercial users may be required to acquire a separate license for for-profit use.
GNU General Public License (sometimes called ‘copyleft’) requires copies and derivatives of the source code to be made available on terms no more restrictive than those of the original to ensure freedoms are preserved.
Open Content License (OPL) does not allow the licensed material, or derivations, to be sold for a fee.
BSD licenses (sometimes misleadingly called ‘copycenter’ – note that it is not in between copyright and copyleft, but intended to be even less restrictive than either, as in “‘take it down to the copy center and make as many copies as you want.’) are a type of permissive free software licenses, free software licenses for a copyrighted work that offer many of the same freedoms as releasing a work to the public domain.
Open access journals are free of cost and nearly free of restrictions, though some preclude commercial re-use and some preclude derivative works. Some only require proper attribution. In all cases, they do go beyond fair use/fair dealing.
There are other examples of open-access content with limits on use. One can make images freely accessible and allow personal uses, but control publication. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will allow free access to high-resolution images, free use in scholarly publications (with limits, terms, and conditions), but precludes broader commercial publication without a separate agreement.
The Open Content Alliance is struggling to be open in as many senses of the word as they can. But entering into arrangements with less-open partners makes that a real challenge.
Open terms can be temporary. For example, an institution could negotiate with a digitization partner that the institution would receive digitized copies of public domain books without restrictions on their use. The university could then choose to restrict use to its enrolled students.
An open format or open standard is a published specification maintained by a non-proprietary standards organization that is free of legal restrictions on use. Many proprietary software products use open formats. And open source software can use proprietary formats.
Is JPEG 2000 an open standard? Yes, but. The baseline implementation is licensed, but cost-free. Some of the extensions in other parts of the specification include technology that is patented and available on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms. Most people don’t use JPEG 2000, the specification; they use software applications that use the specification and those are often very proprietary. TIFF, on the other hand, is a proprietary standard (owned by Adobe), but its use is much more open.
Other software we hold near and dear treads this uneven terrain. OpenURL is an open standard, but most of the resolvers are commercial products.
Then there’s openness, the kind that doesn’t require non-disclosure agreements. An open negotiation is one where the constituents, funders, and other interested parties can be included during the negotiation and the resulting agreement is publicly accessible.
Lots of times when we use the word ‘open’ we mean for the community good. Many campus-developed open endeavors start out free, but then find themselves needing to develop a sustainability plan. Often that results in the formation of an independent organization with staff and costs. Without a sugar-daddy, they often resort to licensing or charging for support, maintenance, documentation, and customization. DSpace Fedora, LOCKSS, and DLF’s Aquifer are in various stages of exploring these possibilities. Some campus-initiated projects have managed to remain open in most senses of the word; MDID, OAI, and DCMI are exemplary.
So when someone uses the word ‘open’ or ‘free’, ask what they mean:
Is it free of cost or restriction-free, or both?
Is it open terms – and if so, open to whom?
Is it open, meaning it’s OK to make copies, but it’s been made very difficult to do so?
Is this an ‘open problem’? Is it ‘open-ended’? Are you ‘open-minded’?
Oh, and, if what they mean is free beer, take them up on it.
Ricky Erway, Senior Program Officer at OCLC Research, worked with staff from the OCLC Research Library Partnership on projects ranging from managing born digital archives to research data curation. Ricky left OCLC in 2015.