Is OER always free? Always?

I stirred up a fun hornet’s nest by my answer to this question on the Creative Commons mailing list.

My feeling is that while this is a fun and articulate dust up with writing by smart and thoughtful people.   Nothing will really change w.r.t. funding truly open source and truly open content.  But it is a fun read.

*Chuck’s Answer to “Is OER always free? Always?”*

TL;DR; Chuck is probably too passionate about Open Source and Open Content – feel free to delete this :)

I think that a really key element of this conversation is that even if OER material removes the commercial cost of a license – it does not and cannot eliminate all costs.

You might need to purchase a computer or phone to read it, you might have to need to purchase an Internet data plan, if you want it on paper, you might need to purchase a printer and some paper, or possible pay someone with a printer to print it for you at a reasonable cost.  You might need to rent a server to host it online for those in your courses.  You might need to pay a person to monitor your server and upgrade it from time to time.

The makers of OER cannot eliminate these normal / reasonable costs of access.   These costs have been with us longer than the Creative Commons license has been in existence.  They are not a problem – they are just reality.

*Building to a Rant*

The new cost that is more subtle is when OER content is not useful without some kind of software which may or may not be free.   Perhaps the content is in a non-open source adaptive learning system where you cannot get the software and you cannot even get the raw OER or see the data model of the adaptive learning system so you could build your own.   It is a closed magic box that is opaque.

Because the OER is “openly licensed”, perhaps if you pay to use the access software, you can take screen shots of the OER, then scan it, and OCR it and *legally* make your own copy.  But this is a little weak on the “reuse” claim – you can reuse it at massive cost or effort.  The LibreTexts project puts a lot of effort into “freeing” OER licensed content from proprietary forts.  It is a lot of work – but pretty cool.

And sure you can wave your hands and dream of open content and a complete open source chain of production where the raw material is openly licensed and *everything* in the value chain is also free.  I have done this for *one* course – Python for Everybody.  If you start with my github repo, you can build an LMS, a web site, an online teaching system, and even a camera ready textbook ready for printing using 100% free software.  I use LaTeX and pandoc for the print book – it is perhaps less convenient that Word but it is free.  P.S. I also have a README that tells how to do it.

It is possible with great effort, but there are a number of problems.

First, it is harder to keep a 100% open chain of production from beginning to end – you need solid technical skills and a lot of patience.  I have shown 100’s of people my 100% open process – and literally no one has replicated it because it is easier to just fall into the easier path of proprietary approaches.

Second, no one supports or invests effort into improving the free and open source production chain because (again) everyone is so busy (or lazy).  This help s keep the no-free alternatives easier to use.

Third, philanthropists like Dell, Zuckerberg, and Gates and governments pour money into semi-proprietary activities because those activities feel “comfortable”.  Giving money to open source hippies – not so much.  The short sightedness of these well-intentioned funders makes me see red – they prop up weak companies with overly large staffs using the not-100% open models and never give a single cent to real, open models.

Fourth, efforts that start open source / open content that reach some escape velocity are quickly moved away from the truly open world and towards a partially-commercial, profitable, and sustainable.  As they move away from open, benefit flows towards them in the form of revenue, grants, and accolades (because they spend money on sales and marketing).  They then fork away from their open roots and just become proprietary for some essential parts of their operation to achieve the lock in they need as they go from 5 to 40 employees.

As a 100% open end-to-end person (one of the few) – I get it – and accept that 100% open is always going to be a hard path – it is like being a monk and sleeping on cold stone floors :)

The thing that pisses me off in conversations like these is how those who are “pretty open”  or “open core” or whatever participate in these discussions with the intent of defining their variation of hybrid proprietary + open in the name of money as “good enough” or “the best we can do” or “an ideal compromise”.  They want validation / kudos / accolades for their particular choice of non-open bits.

I get that there are a lot of “not 100% open” business models and those should be “allowed” – but they should not be “celebrated” as the “pinnacle” of open just because someone makes a speech about how *their* hybrid model is the best we can do.

By the way – there is a way to make money on things like printing, hosting, support, etc etc without violating the principle of 100% open.  The Occam’s razor is whether someone else can replicate what you are doing if they put their mind to it – and if your company has software that is essential to making some OER content comes to life.  It helps if you also have a README as to how to set up a copy of what you have built.

It is 100% honorable to make *reasonable* profit for value add on top of open source.   But you make a lot more profit if you sneak some proprietary bit into the value chain and then get folks to adopt your entire chain because has some open elements to it.

Back to your regularly scheduled conversation patting “open core” folks on the back and giving them your money because some open is better than none. :)


P.S. If you want to really confuse me – start talking about ElasticSearch, its revenue model, free versions, and its licensing :)