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Archive for January 2nd, 2010

The Threats To Openness

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 2 January 2010

I’ve a folder called “Openness” in my RSS reader. And the most prolific blogger in this folder is Glyn Moody in his Open blog.

As indicated by the blog’s sub-title “open source, open genomics, open content” Glyn comments on a broad range of issues related to openness.

These are areas of interest to me too – indeed back in 2007 myself, Randy Metcalfe and Scott Wilson write a paper entitled “Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access” which was published at the ELPUB 2007 conference.

As indicated by the paper’s abstract although we feel that open standards, open source and open content can provide many benefits in education and research we realise that there are also potential pitfalls and complexities:

For advisory services, the goal is to achieve the best solution for any individual institution’s needs, balancing its enthusiasm with its own internal constraints and long term commitments. For example, open standards are a genuine good, but they may fail to gain market acceptance. Rushing headlong to standardize on open standards may not be the best approach. Instead a healthy dose of pragmatism is required. Similarly, open source software is an excellent choice when it best meets the needs of an institution, but not perhaps without reference to those needs.

Despite the warning against “rushing headlong’ into the latest open technology I fell into this trap personally in my purchase of my open source HTC Magic Android phone (I use my closed source iPod Touch when a WiFi network is available, using my sophisticated Android SmartPhone mostly as a dumb mobile phone!)

However in general I promote a culture of openness – for example I’ve used a Creative Commons licence for this blog since it was launched and have used Creative Commons licence for my presentations since my first Web 2.0 talk entitled “Web Futures: Implications For HE” given at King’s College London in January 2006.

But although I personally have embrace the notion of open content and have promoted greater take-up of Creative Commons for over four years I haven’t really considered the ways in which organisations and industries which feel threatened by the notions of openness may be responding – and perhaps undermining my attempts to encourage public sector organisations to engage more actively with the openness agenda.

Glyn, however, does seek to warn his readers of ways in which organisations are seeking to undermine the notion of openness. And in a post entitled “The Great Digital Bait and Switch” he cites an article published in the Wall Street Journal:

The palm-sized Arduino serves as an electronic brain running everything from high schoolers’ robots to high-end art installations. But perhaps the oddest thing about the device is the business model behind it.

Plans for the Arduino, a simple microcontroller board, are available online, and anybody may legally use them to build and sell knockoffs.

As Glyn concludes the article is “equating the ability to *build* on the work of others, and improve upon it, as another kind of “knock-off”. This is not just wrong-headed, but really pernicious, because it implies that open source is little better than counterfeiting.

Back in 2005 we heard that from Bill Gates that “Free Culture advocates = Commies“. And now these arguments are being revived. But what’s different is that back in 2005 it was easy to dismiss Bill Gates’s views as being irrelevant. But today we have Peter Mandelson and the Digital Economy Bill which would “give government ‘unprecedented and sweeping powers’ to amend copyright laws“.

So maybe the gently pushing of open content is no longer enough. Perhaps we need to trumpet loudly our commitment to openness and be prepared to challenge those in the public sector who are still wavering over use of open licences. If we fail to stand up and loudly express our views, we may find that the commercial sector sets the agenda and influences public opinion into the mistaken belief that openness is about theft.

Will you join me in using a Creative Commons licence as a badge of pride and a means of encouraging creativity and innovation!? Can this be your resolution for 2010?

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