Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Free/libre knowledge resources

I had the pleasure of meeting Kim Tucker at the OpenLearn conference last week. Kim has long campaigned on the concept of free/libre knowledge as the most effective way to bridge the knowledge divide. I highly recommend his essay,'Say "Libre" for Knowledge and Learning Resources', something of a manifesto calling for widespread freedom of access to information and knowledge.

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Abstract

In response to discussions among members of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement about whether to describe learning resources as "free", "libre" or "open", this essay clarifies the position of the "libre" camp and outlines the rationale for referring to knowledge and learning resources as "libre" or "free" rather than "open".

We start by building on a decade of debate and experience in the world of free/libre and open source software. Substantial sections of Why "Open Source" misses the point of Free Software and other essays of opinion Richard Stallman have been copied and adapted with permission.

We generalise from free software to free knowledge, and indicate the importance of the semantics in building community and shaping the future - towards a broad vision for a libre knowledge society.

Introduction

When we call a knowledge resource “libre”, or "free", we mean that it respects the users' essential freedoms: the freedom to use the work for any purpose, to study its mechanisms to be able to modify and adapt it to their own needs, to make and distribute copies in whole or in part, and to enhance or extend the work and share the results freely. Free knowledge requires use of free software to access and manipulate the resources which should be stored in free file formats. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of “free speech,” not “free beer.”

These freedoms are vitally important. They are essential, not just for the individual users' sake, but because they promote social solidarity—that is, sharing and cooperation. They become even more important as more and more of our culture and life activities are digitized. In a world of digital sounds, images, words, other digital resources and electronic social interactions, free software and libre knowledge resources become increasingly equated with freedom in general.

Tens of millions of people around the world now use free software and libre knowledge resources; schools in regions of India, Spain and southern Africa now teach learners to use the free GNU/Linux operating system, and share free knowledge resources such as Wikipedia for Schools and GCompris, while implicitly free knowledge policies are becoming common in prominent OER, Open Access and other educational initiatives (e.g. PLoS, WikiEducator, WikiVersity, Connexions, Le Mill, Kewl, etc.).

In the case of software, most users seldom think about the ethical reasons for which these systems and communities have been built, because today the systems and communities are more often referred to as “open", rather than "free" or "libre", and are attributed to a different philosophy in which these freedoms are hardly mentioned.

Within the open knowledge and education communities, attention tends to be more on the authors' copyright and ownership of resources than the learners' freedom to use them and to engage with the community. This detracts from the intent of most of these initiatives, and leaves them open to threats which could severely undermine the entire movement.

The primary plea of this article is for the "open" initiatives to assess their degree of alignment with the vision for libre knowledge expressed here, and to consider adjusting their terminology to match.

Vision

Education and life-long learning are about sharing and generating knowledge. The libre knowledge vision has been expressed as follows:

Knowledge for all, freedom to learn, towards collective wisdom
enabling people to empower themselves with knowledge
and to share it for community benefit

When knowledge is shared electronically, the freedom to use, modify (localise), enhance, mix and share, is essential for effective knowledge transfer. Localisation is almost always required.

If you feel some resonance with this vision, and an affinity with the associated culture of cooperation and sharing, then please read on, as it is under threat. A collaborative effort is required to ensure such a free Internet culture."

2 comments:

Rufus Pollock said...

Ray, we chatted briefly yesterday about Kim Tucker's article. Here's the post that I sent to okfn-discuss in response to Kim's original announcement to the list (online at http://lists.okfn.org/pipermail/okfn-discuss/2007-September/000572.html ):

Kim Tucker wrote:
> Hi all,
>
> Apologies if this an old debate you all had a long time ago, but it
> seems relevant to this discussion.
>
> http://communities.libre.org/philosophy/saylibre

Thanks for the link. While this kind of debate (free/libre vs. open) is something that has definitely cropped up before it is good to raise it again. Having now read fully that document I would still prefer prefer to use 'open' rather than 'libre/free'.

My reasons are very similar (but obverse) to those cited for using the 'libre/free' term. Most importantly, I don't think that making information 'libre/free/open' is a *moral* obligation but is rather a question of pragmatics (or maximizing social welfare in economist's terminology).

To put it most bluntly: suppose there is a particular piece of knowledge (be it a book, a software programme, or the formula for a pharmaceutical) that would *only* be developed if it were to be 'nonfree/closed' (e.g. covered by secrecy or by a patent or a copyright) -- perhaps because without those monopoly rights the developer would not gain sufficient rents. In that case I would certainly prefer to have that piece of knowledge albeit in a closed form than no knowledge at all.

Thus I cannot see that there is some overriding moral obligation to make information open. Rather one advocates an 'open/libre/free' approach to knowledge production where that makes sense -- and with the particular awareness that because of the nonrival nature of knowledge it is always optimal to provide the knowledge openly once created (but note that 'once created' for therein lies the rub).

I think there is clearly huge potential for increased usage of open/libre approaches to knowledge production and distribution and for such approaches to deliver immense value to society. But this is very much *not* a blanket statement that "open knowledge good, closed knowledge bad". In each situation one must look at the costs and benefits, both for those specifically involved and for society as a whole. Almost always there will be (complex) trade-offs between current producers, future producers and users (of course in some cases producers and users may be the same).

I would like to end this discussion on a cautionary note. My stance as a pragmatist here also has, in some sense, philosophical underpinnings. Looking at what is written by proponents of the 'libre' approach I often get the eerie sense that they see 'libre' software (and knowledge) as having some kind of revolutionary potential for the liberation of humankind and for the erasing of existing social inequalities (this talk [1] by Eben Moglen is a good example). While it would be wonderful if this were true *I am deeply sceptical that it is so*. For thousands of years people have been seeking (and advocating) ways to liberation (and as Moglen notes occasionally coercing others in pursuit of this goal) and it seems to me unlikely that 'open/libre' knowledge will suddenly allow us to crack the problem.

Of course 'open/free' knowledge might be of some assistance in helping people 'liberate' themselves -- and one can hope it will -- but even here one should be realistic: all of humanities greatest literary, philosophical and scientific works up to 1920 are already in the public domain and, at least in developed countries, accessible to anyone who wishes to read them. Any yet somehow most people can still spend a lot of time watching big brother or reading mills & boon. Thus, I do not think it is the cost of accessing information, or even the inability to participate in collaborative development communities, that is holding humanity back from perfection but simply ourselves. As Cassius had it:

"The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves"

[1]: http://www.geof.net/research/2006/moglen-notes

> Keep up the great work :-) .

Thank-you very much and I think you're article has done an excellent job of summarizing the arguments.

Ray said...

Thanks for the link Rufus. I take your point about openness and access. Liberty will be no more an automatic emergent property of a system of free access to information, than of the so-called war on terror.