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New Free License to Cover Content Online

In the postmodern information economy -- or so the cliché goes -- data in all its many and varied forms will circulate promiscuously and polymorphously. Copyrights will be meaningless, the music, book, and film industries will collapse, and bootleg Backstreet Boys MP3 files will clog the world’s already overtaxed information pipelines..

Cliché though it is, it’s really not that unlikely. So how come the only people thinking about the situation seriously are software geeks? Like it or not, we're headed for the age of OpenContent.

OpenContent is the brainchild of David Wiley, a doctoral candidate in instructional psychology at Brigham Young University. When Wiley had some teaching materials that he thought other people would find useful, he wanted to be able to circulate them for free, but in such a way that he knew he’d get credit for them and that they wouldn’t be altered in an irresponsible way.

Being a Linux geek, he took as his model the Gnu General Public License (GPL) that had been developed for free software. "What we started off with was myself and Richard" -– Richard being the legendary Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation -– "trying to tweak the GPL so it would apply to content"; he also talked it over with the also-legendary Eric Raymond, author of the influential essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." They were keeping in mind not only academic texts, but also other forms of content, such as home-brewed software documentation. What they came up with was the OpenContent License (OPL, pronounced like "opal").

Basically, OPL states that you can use the content covered by it for free, that any changes anybody makes to it have to be clearly marked and credited, and that anything based on that content must also be under the OpenContent License. Big deal, you might say. Isn't that the same as any other free software license? It’s the second part that makes the difference. "The issue you get into is modification," says Wiley. "There was a lot of debate up front between professional academics and people who were just writing documentation for free software. There's been a lot heat about that." OpenContent straddles the software and the academic worlds, and naturally the academics, who work in an industry where credit and publication are everything, are a lot more reluctant to let their course packets wander free. "I think it's going to be quite offensive to quite a few people," says Wiley -– and he’s talking about people on both sides of the fence.

But support for OPL is growing. "I want to maintain authorial control over what gets passed around under my name," says Kendall Clark, who’s working on a Ph.D. in religious studies at SMU, and who put his course materials under OPL. Like Wiley, he works in both the academic and the software worlds. He points out that carefully attributing all changes is far more important for content than it is for software, because, bluntly put, "The difference between code that sucks and code that's good is a lot more objective than prose that sucks and prose that's good." If an application runs faster, everybody agrees it’s better; if a textbook acquires an arch-conservative slant, for example, not everybody’s going to be happy about it. He looks forward to a future in which technology will force us to come up with a new way to think about the ownership of content: "I think it is inevitable," he says. "It's going to happen."

But it’s not only academics and coders who are getting interested in OpenContent. Jim Leonard put oldskool.org, a collection of essays about early PC computer games, under OPL in part to prove that he was doing it for free. "Since some of the material I write about can sometimes be mistaken for something that gaming companies might find litigious (…on occasion I include screenshots, audio clips, scans of box/cover art, etc.)," he writes in an e-mail, "I wanted to make it perfectly clear that my work was done not for profit but strictly for the purpose of historical documentation and education."

Wiley maintains a list of the content currently available under OPL, and so far it’s not that long, but it is growing, and the Web will undoubtedly help. "The Web has a tendency to attract plagiarists," says Leonard. "Since it's effortless to appropriate information from any number of web sites and include it on your own without proper credit to the author."

Wiley is currently huddled with the software crowd, trying to merge GPL and OPL into one overarching license. Will free content really take over the world one day? Is the world ready for its first open-source novel? Its first free concept album? Maybe not, but free content is a reality that won't go away, and OPL is the first baby step toward dealing with it in a civilized manner. "Commercial software hasn't stamped out free software yet," says Wiley, ever the mild-mannered revolutionary. "There's room in the world for both."


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Mon., Sept. 21, 1998


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