Free and Open?

One of the books we saw at the CDSC contained a GNU license. As some folks pointed out, it provided many of the same possibilities for sharing as Creative Commons licenses provide. The GNU license, however, predates Creative Commons and serves as an important reminder of how open access got its start. GNU started as an operating system, based on Unix, but without any Unix code. GNU creator, Richard Stallman, wanted to create a free operating system that would function much like the proprietary Unix system developed by Bell Labs in the 1970s. Stallman began work on GNU—a recursive acronym for GNU Is Not Unix—in 1984 and soon after published a manifesto explaining the philosophy of free software. Basically, Stallman argued we should all have the freedom to use, modify, and redistribute software without having to ask (or pay) for permission.

The GNU license made it legally possible to share code freely while stipulating the terms for how it’s shared. The Free Software Foundation made explicit how protecting the freedom to use code without permission employed “technical means to serve a social end.” Copyleft, as Stallman coined it, advocated for the end of hoarding generally useful information. Restricting uses of knowledge, the logic goes, restricts the usefulness of knowledge, making everyone poorer in the end. In the late 1990s the Open Source Initiative reinvented the basic idea with new terminology, replacing free with open source. Open source software held onto many of the technical ideals pioneered by free software—the right to use, modify, and redistribute—but ditched the social ideals of community and justice. From open source, to open access, to open educational resources, the significance of open remains an open question (badum ching).


Not everyone who supports open information systems agrees on the value of social justice. Some prefer to reckon the value in market terms. As Eric Raymond put it, “higher reliability and lower cost and better features.” The same differences that separated the Free Software Foundation from the Open Source Initiative divide the Open Education Movement. We can see this tension in the way the Open Educational Resources Commons explains their mission: “The Open Education Movement is not just about cost savings and easy access to openly licensed content; it’s about participation and co-creation.” First and foremost, they say, Open Education should protect the human right to good education, not the market value of inexpensive materials. This point may be especially important from a global perspective because what’s cheap in the United States (Internet access, for example) may not be cheap elsewhere.

Despite uneven modes access to digital resources, digital technologies have been crucial for curating and distributing Open Educational Resources, as the OER Commons make evident. Open access projects could not exist as they do without the global communication networks enabled by the Internet. Yet digital reproduction also creates new complications. A title from the University of Minnesota’s Open Library provides a wonderfully strange example. When UM Libraries republished Principles of Marketing in a free, digital edition, the original publisher and authors asked not to receive attribution. Why? Their reasons are not clear, but it seems the authors were happy enough to keep their credentials in place despite asking that their names be removed. Was it some arcane copyright law that prevented them from taking credit? Extra credit to anyone who can find out!

Okay, here’s a more doable challenge: Extra credit to anyone who reveals the true identity of these “Unnamed Authors” in a blog post—include a link to your proof.


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