An Ecology That Encourages Commercial Development
advocates a form of “open” that explicitly encourages the closing and blocking of access to education through the commercialization of these resources. The meaning of the catchphrase about “differences among licensing schemes for open resources creat(ing) confusion and incompatibility” is made explicit in the FAQ: “we believe that open education and open educational resources are very much compatible with the business of commercial publishing.” (“Criticizing”)
When Attribution advocates point out that copyleft discourages the participation of commercial entities, they are only partially correct. It’s true. Copyleft does discourage some participation by commercial entities. It does prohibit the normal “business of commercial publishing” that the Cape Town FAQ seems to refer to. Yet, the business and intellectual property production models that emerge in a climate of copyleft protection are different from the “business as usual” approach of intellectual property ownership and commercial exploitation. Because of the trust created among project contributors, copyleft can stimulate an ecology of knowledge creation based on collaboration and sharing. Increased collaboration and sharing serve not only as a set of ideals around which community members may rally in support of their project, but they are also important to the growth of a community and the quality of the content it produces.
The effects of copyleft on open source community participation can provide more insight. In arguing against license proliferation and for licenses compatible to the GNU GPL, David Wheeler, an educator well known in the open source community for his essay “Why Open Source Software / Free Software? Look at the Numbers,” explains in “Make Your Open Source Software GPL-Compatible. Or Else.” that
Many FLOSS developers prefer the GPL, because they believe the GPL (1) provides a better quid-pro-quo for developers, (2) establishes collaboration between people and companies better than consortia, (3) protects their work in today’s less-than-kind environment, and/or (4) encourages increasing the amount of Free Software.
(1), (2), and (3) in Wheeler’s list contribute to a positive acceleration of appropriation resulting in (4). Not only do existing companies partner together with individuals in an open source community, but because the content cannot be enclosed to achieve competitive advantage, copyleft protects an ecology in which new businesses based on this model can flourish without fear of a larger company running away with the code and producing a proprietary version.
For instance, through my involvement in the Drupal community over several years (Drupal is an open source content management system that uses the GNU GPL), I observed many developers go from being part-time participants for which Drupal was a hobby-that-became-passion, to consultants who started their own companies or otherwise found full time employment developing for Drupal. In fact, Dries Buytaert, lead developer and founder of Drupal, began the project back in 2000 when a student at University of Antwerp. Almost eight years later, after Buytaert defended his PhD dissertation in Computer Science at the University of Ghent, Drupal had become so successful that Buytaert acquired $7 million to establish Acquia, a Drupal start up that provides services built around Drupal, much like Red Hat does with Linux.
Arguably, this is a major factor in Linux’s success (Linus Torvalds has an even more impressive success story of graduate student to major information technology star), and how Linux has been able to evolve into a project that produces quality software that matches or exceeds what an individual corporate entity—such as Microsoft—can do. And the reverse could be said about Unix’s use of the BSD license: that it was unsuccessful in fostering a sustainable ecology of commercial development. As David Bollier describes of the failure of Unix, it
becom[e] a fragmented mess. . . . of incompatible proprietary versions. In the words of a Sun Microsystems executive at the time, users were unhappy with the “duplication of effort around different implementations, leading to high prices; poor compatibility; and worst of all, slower development as each separate Unix vendor had to solve the same kinds of problems independently. (33)
While there are many more Linux distributions available than there are flavors of Unix, because copyleft eliminates the competitive advantage of proprietary development, it encourages contributing back to the main Linux source code trunk managed by Linus Torvalds; the software commons of Linux continues to grow instead of becoming stagnant or withering and dying.
Projects where companies partner with educators to form communities to take advantage of the ecology created by copyleft are still fairly rare in open education. (For an innovative example, see FreeReading, a curriculum development community founded by Wireless Generation, that shares content using Share Alike.) Open education is still in the very early stages of business development around Share Alike. As viable business models emerge—and it will certainly require some experimentation and failure, just as it did in the open source community during the dot-com bubble and the years following—the likelihood of more commercial partnerships with educators will increase.
When Share Alike is considered in light of the insights provided above and in the preceding section, copyleft can be seen to have a more favorable effect on commons growth than was previously accounted for in my analysis using rhetorical velocity. When commercial involvement is taken into consideration—both the potential for negative rhetorical acceleration when Attribution is used and the positive rhetorical acceleration that can result from copyleft—in combination with the trust that copyleft can create among collaborators in general, there is a strong case to be made that licensing content with Share Alike could result in a larger, sustainable education commons over the long term. Moreover, if commercial involvement that benefits the creation of OER is a major priority, Share Alike is likely a much better choice for licensing content than Attribution.