A Climate of Trust in Commons Development
Use of Share Alike can encourage the development of business models that involve building services around content and contributing back to the commons. When content is licensed under Share Alike, the open content produced has little direct commercial value in the marketplace even though commercial use is permitted. For example, if I produce a derivative work of a Share Alike licensed open textbook on my own, one that is significantly enhanced over previous versions, I can sell it, even though I must license it as Share Alike. As a result of the license, any person who buys it—for whatever price I set—can post it to the Internet and give it away for free. From that point on, the potential market value for selling the book has disappeared.
Thus, copyleft content has little value as a commodity to be traded in the marketplace because it can be shared legally the way that our students illicitly trade MP3s on the Internet. Commercial value must come from services or other products offered in relation to the copyleft-licensed content. Building added value around copyleft-licensed open source software is known as the “conversion model” of generating revenue: “you give something away for free and then convert the consumer of the freebie to a paying customer—somehow” (Sterne and Herring). For example, because of open source licensing, Red Hat Linux can be downloaded for free by anyone. Once downloaded, it can then be shared with others. Red Hat makes money by selling their expertise in using Linux through services such as technical support, a Linux distribution vetted by them for commercial use (the distribution contains versions of different applications that work well with each other and the operating system version itself), and Red Hat selected automatic updates (similar to Windows Update).
On the other hand, Attribution-licensed content or BSD-licensed software encourages a commercial model of exploitation instead of a conversion model. In the example of University X in the preceding section who releases OER content into the education commons, and does so using the Attribution license, a textbook company could enclose some of those resources by investing money in significantly improving and expanding them, achieve a competitive advantage, and then sell their derivative resources without an open content license. The same thing could happen with learning materials on Connexions, an OER community where members are required to share content using the Attribution license (“Connexions - FAQ”). For example, Collaborative Statistics, which has been cited as “proof of concept” of the open textbook (Baker et. al.), is vulnerable to enclosure. Much as with the scenario involving Company A & B in the previous section of this article, a major textbook company could download Collaborative Statistics, significantly revise it, chose not to license it all, and sell it.
Because copyleft prevents this type of negative appropriation, participants in a community can trust that their contributions will not be built upon and later excluded from the commons for commercial gain. When copyleft licenses are used, educators can better trust the commercial players involved in open content production. Faculty who fear that their institution will take ownership of course materials they produce, would also be better able to trust their institution if those materials are licensed as copyleft.
At the same time, since there is little competition over ownership of the product, commercial entities can also better trust each other. For example, IBM, Red Hat, and Novell—all major technology companies with significantly different histories and different business strategies—have developed business models that depend on Linux and invest significant resources into its continued development.