On the importance of open funding models

by Kelsey Wiens

The benefits of open licenses are clear and substantial. By reducing the burdens and removing the risks associated with ordinary copyright, we make it easier for others to use, share, and build on materials. This week US-based international funder, the Hewlett Foundation, announced that it now requires that grantees license the final materials created with those grants (reports, videos, white papers) under the most recent Creative Commons Attribution license (currently CC-BY 4.0). With over $8 billion in its endowment, the foundation’s policy stance has monumental consequences. It also begs the question:

Why don’t all funders do the same? 

The copyright of the outputs of a project either sits with the foundation or the grantee and once the work is completed is most often buried in a press release or a research paper; filed in a boxed marked “Good Job”. The foundation or grantee must henceforth give permission for others to copy, distribute, remix or reuse the works. It’s guarded, often it’s difficult to find and even more difficult to locate the owner and negotiate and secure permissions.

But why guard a good idea?

Especially a good idea that someone else can build on top of. Or one that might make a difference in the one thing you were trying to change to begin with. The Hewlett Foundation is a long standing supporter of Open Licences for Open Educational Resources (OER) Grants. OER are defined as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge”.

To improve international education resources Hewlett, since 2002, has been supporting the creation of high quality, self-sustaining, globally adaptive resources. Open licences and access to materials is the great global education equalizer. In 2010 Hewlett’s annual report stated it had spent over $110 million in OER, covering everything from kindergarten to lifelong learning materials.

Reducing barriers to access, and the risks associated with copyright, only serves to magnify the impact of research, good ideas and resources. Unintended benefactors of Hewlett’s open licence policy includes projects like P2PU, a nonprofit online open learning community which allows users to organize, instruct and participate in courses, and saylor.org which includes tuition-free courses, created by credentialed educators available on demand. And local education disruptor Siyavula which produces curriculum-aligned openly-licensed textbooks.

Open licence grant requirements are not new. Projects like Siyavula and P2PU were both seeded by Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowships. Built on Openness and on the values of FOSS the Shuttleworth Foundation asks questions like “what if you apply FOSS’ values, process and licences?”; “Could that provide key building blocks for further innovation?” and “What are the conditions that optimise innovation for positive social change and how can openness add value to that process?”

“The practical reasons are clear: increased likelihood of impact and scaling for ideas they fund, in ways that could never even be imagined by design . . . [as well as] less tangible but equally important benefits that come from the faster feedback loops and the promotion of open, collaborative ways of working. It’s worth taking the time to ask: what are my reasons for keeping this or that idea closed? Unless there is a real bottom line reason, set your ideas free.”— Mark Surman, “How We Work: Open Licensing,” May 2008, Shuttleworth Foundation

The importance of Hewlett’s recent decision and Shuttleworth’s long-standing requirements is that they take an active stances on the availability of content. They are using their funding to open doors. Without open licensing mandates, we would see inevitable duplication, reduced impact, and decreased sustainability. These are not outcomes that funders would welcome. Without taking an active stance and mandating open licenses, well-meaning efforts to produce useful content are wasted. Content access defaults to becoming closed, unfindable and proprietary.