A commons needs more than open licensing

When I look across the various “open” communities in which I either participate in or monitor, there’s a lot of recurring issues.

For example, sustainability is a common issue across open data, open source and open science. How do we ensure sustainable access to data? How do we make individual open source projects sustainable when their leaders are stretched? How do we make the data infrastructure required to support open access and research sustainable over the long term?

Trust is another common theme. How do we build trust around how open source software is developed, maintained and distributed? How do we build trust around data stewardship?

Ethical and responsible approaches to creating and using software, data, images and cultural objects is another cross-cutting theme. Is it ethical to take openly licensed images and feed them into facial recognition algorithms?

I see these issues largely as a natural step in the success of the “open” approach. Open source, open data, open access, are much more mainstream than they were 5, 10 or 20 years ago.

When we have more openly licensed stuff available, and more people using it, then we will naturally encounter a new set of issues.

Unfortunately though I’ve come to realise that a narrow focus on open licensing has not set us up well to deal with these issues. And may in fact have made them more difficult to navigate.

I should be clear that I think open licences are a necessary and important building block of an thriving, open commons.

I’ve written a great deal in this blog about the benefits of open licensing. And I’ve argued that open licences are important and critical parts of many different initiatives.

I still think that is the case.

An open licence is intended to clearly communicate that the creator of a work (data, image, etc) has given permission for it to be legally reused, remixed and redistributed. The reuser does not need to ask permission to do any of those tasks.

By design, an open licence encourages reuse by limiting the need for any interaction between creator and reuser.

But I think that a healthy commons, a healthy data ecosystem, requires interactions between its participants. These needn’t be legal discussions, but there should be a dialogue around how content, data and code is being reused. Its through this dialogue and debate, celebration and censure that we build shared norms and expectations. Its through those processes that we build trust and find a path towards ensuring that access to these openly licences works can be made sustainable.

But a healthy commons, a healthy data ecosystem, requires interactions between its participants.

I don’t mean legal debates or contract negotiations. But there should be a dialogue around how content, data and code is being reused. Its through dialogue and debate, celebration and censure that we build shared norms and expectations. It’s these processes that help to build trust and find a path towards ensuring that access to these openly licences works can be made sustainable.

Those interactions and those norms may look different in different communities and domains, but they’re necessary.

Ostrom’s principles are all built on the premise that there is a shared understanding of the group that is stewarding a commons. And that those who are part of that group have a clear understanding of the rules and norms that govern it.

A narrow focus on access creates the kind of caricature of the commons that Hardin described as a tragedy.

Open licensing, and limited forms of attribution does not, and has not encouraged the creation of a healthy commons.

As I said at the start, I don’t think open licences are to blame for this. Or that we should discount them.

It just feels to me that we’d be in a better situation to navigate through some of the ethical, trust and sustainability issues facing different part of the “open” movement, if that had been clearer to everyone from the start.

An open licence should be an invitation to collaborate and not just a permission slip.

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