Open and free

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This page was essentially the rant of one person and may not fit the view of the community. If it becomes listed on vfd for being a personal page, please rather move it to a user:anthere sub page. Thanks.

Work in progress

The below article was inspired by the artists I met at pixelACHE during the Dot Org Boom event. I (=user:anthere) realised that day that if developers had a rather good understanding of what open and free meant, it was not the case of most people for whom these concepts are rather new.

Free licensing is sometimes promoted amongst artists, activists and ngos accross the world, but there is not always a good understanding of what the term encompass. Besides, after more than three years on Wikipedia, I realise that many editors join the project with a rather poor understanding of the underlying principles, in particular the fact wikipedia is free of charge but that its content may nevertheless be used for commercial reasons.

Despite apparent similarities in their definition, open content is distinct from free content. Free content offers a more restrictive definition and as a consequence, basically all free software is open source. However, open-content may or may not be "free". The matter of difference between both is more a matter of philosophy and typically fostered a lot of controversy among proponents of free software versus open software.

My goal here is not to enter a philosophical debate, but rather to try to clarify things and offer a very possibly simplistic but clearer understanding of the meaning of both terms. I am perfectly aware the content is a simplification of the reality, and does not cover all the controversies surrounding the topic; however, I wish to address it to lay-wo-men (just like me) rather than to professionals or developers. I hope it can help.


Some definitions[edit]

What does open mean ?[edit]

Open content describes any kind of creative work including articles, pictures, audio, and video that is published in a format that explicitly allows the copying of the information.

"Open content" is also sometimes (possibly abusively) used to describe content that can be modified by anyone;

The two meanings of "free" ?[edit]

The are two meanings to the word free.

  • free as in freedom or freedom of speech
  • free as in free of charge.

The two meanings of the term free are often illustrated with the phrases "w:en:free as in beer," which alludes to monetary price or cost but has little to do with freedom, and "w:en:free as in speech". The usage of "free" in "free content" carries the latter meaning -- free as in speech -- because the emphasis is on everyone's freedom to engage with the content, understand it, modify it, and share it with others.

Many languages other than English use two different words for these distinct concepts. In English, it is sometimes useful to use two less common but more precise words, both adopted from French:

  • libre (meaning free as in speech) and
  • gratis (meaning free as in beer).

In these terms, free-content works are always libre, often but not necessarily gratis.

Overall, this is confusing, because when using the term "free", it sometimes mean free of charge, sometimes free of speech, and sometimes both !

Here are some examples :

  • Freeware is for example a computer software which is made available w:en:gratis/free of charge. Typically freeware is proprietary; distributed without w:en:source code. It usually carries a license that permits redistribution but may have other restrictions, such as limitations on its commercial use. For example, a license might allow the software to be freely copied, but not sold, or might forbid use by government agencies or armed forces.
  • Wikipedia is both free/libre and free/gratis.

What is a derivative work ?[edit]

In copyright law, a derivative work is an artistic creation that includes aspects of work previously created and protected.

It is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a "derivative work".

For example, any version of a wikipedia article is a derivative work of the previous version.
Similarly, the version 2.0 of a software is a derivative work of version 1.0.
The translation version of a book is also a derivative work

The concept of derivative works prevents others from misappropriating the original work of a creator and redistributing it with "trival" changes without permission. If a derivative work is created with the permission of the original creator, the secondary creator maintains a copyright interest in only the aspects of the derivative work that are his or her original creations.

What does free/libre exactly mean ?[edit]

Free content (or free information) is any kind of functional work, artwork, or other creative content upon which no legal restriction has been placed that significantly interferes with people's freedom to use, redistribute, improve, and share the content.

Importantly, when free content is modified, expanded, or incorporated within another work (called derivative work), the resulting work must be legally distributable, either just as freely as or under more restrictive terms than the original. Free content, whether available at no cost or only for a fee, must be able to be changed if it may be used at all.


According to Stallman and the FSF, "free" software licenses grant:

  • the freedom to run the program for any purpose (called "freedom 0")
  • the freedom to study and modify the program ("freedom 1")
  • the freedom to copy the program so you can help your neighbor ("freedom 2")
  • the freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits ("freedom 3")

Freedoms 1 and 3 require source code access. Although reverse-engineering, studying, and modifying software without source code is possible, it is extremely difficult and highly inefficient compared to modifying annotated source code.

Practically speaking, free content encompasses all works in the public domain and also those copyrighted works whose licenses honor and uphold the freedoms mentioned above.

Variations on free software as defined by the FSF:

  • Copyleft licenses, the GNU General Public License being the most prominent. The author retains copyright and permits redistribution and modification under terms to ensure that all modified versions remain free.
  • Public domain software-the author has abandoned the copyright. Since public-domain software lacks copyright protection, it may be freely incorporated into any work, whether proprietary or free.
  • BSD-style licenses, so called because they are applied to much of the software distributed with the Berkeley Software Distribution operating systems. The author retains copyright protection solely to disclaim warranty and require proper attribution of modified works, but permits redistribution and modification in any work, even proprietary ones.

More about differences between open and free[edit]

The definitions of open and free was mostly the result of the free-software mouvement and open-software mouvement works. Essentially, both groups assert that a more open style of licensing allows for a superior software development process, and therefore that pursuing it is in line with rational self-interest. However, the Free software movement seems to be based upon political and philosophical ideals, while open source proponents tend to focus on more pragmatic arguments.

Open content materials can also be described as free content. However, technically they describe different things. For example, the Open Directory is open content but is not free content. The main difference between licenses is the definition of freedom; some licenses attempt to maximize the freedom of all potential recipients in the future, while others maximize the freedom of the initial recipient.


Consider a musical piece. It author is more likely to consider that the original artwork is the most valuable one. He will possibly prefer focusing on protecting the original artwork rather than allowing it to be modified. What will probably be most important to him is that the musical piece be widely distributed, while allowing anyone to alseo see how it was made, with which techniques, possibly to discuss these techniques with other professionals. This author will rather try to maximise the freedom of the initial work.

Similarly, a developer will want to write some code and in letting it "open", he will allow anyone to "see" how the code is written, what it contains (and sometimes, what it does not contain). He may or may not authorized others to reuse the code, but he will show it in the spirit of transparency.

In comparison, on wikipedia, most original work (first version of an article) is of little value, often a stub. What gives value to the work is the additional work made by many authors in turns. It is consequently very important to maximise the possibility of modification of the original work and subsequent versions.

Why putting a work specifically under a free licence ?[edit]

One of the most important reasons creators or authors might want to put their work under a free license is that in so doing they hope to create the most favourable conditions for a wide range of people to feel invited to read, distribute, and/or even contribute improvements to this work, in a continuing process.

By default, the law grants copyright holders monopolistic control over their creations.

Consequently, if one wishes his creation to be free/libre, one must explicitly declared it free, usually by the referencing or inclusion of licensing statements from within the work.

Why may Wikipedia content be used to make big bucks ?[edit]

This point is often a point of contention. It regularly happens that a (not always so) new editor points out on a discussion page that a website is reusing the content and making money with ads. Usually, it is a quite shocking discovery for him and he might decide to quit Wikipedia and request his participation is removed from the website.

So, why such a license allowing commercial reuse ?

It is simple. The goal of the project is not only to build a resource, but also to share it as widely as possible. We should not become a sort of monopolistic temple of knowledge, to be hosted by the Foundation only and to be protected against all pov pushers. We aim at making the content available to the largest number of people on Earth. We can do so through multilingualism, we can reduce the monetary bottle neck by making the content free of charge on the website... and we can put it under a license which holds as little restriction on its distribution as possible.

Many editors then answer that "the content is already available on line for anyone to use, and may be mixed in other works online to be available to all, so why would we allow commercial use" ?

Well, commercial is not evil, and some information can best be shared through commercial network. CD pressing, book publishing, in particular highly specialized topics, are costly. Allowing a commercial firm to make a bit of money while helping charitable activities to spread is worth it. We should never forget that if most of us here online are wealthy and lucky enough to have a computer and an internet line, it is not so of most of our potential readers. We do not lack information, we may have too much, our problem might more be to distinguish the accurate information or to get all points of view, but it is NOT to get information proper. For many living in third world countries, the issue is simply to get information, and if this implies some firms to make a bit of benefit, there is nothing wrong here.

Free-content licenses[edit]

Free-content licenses may be copyleft -- in which case modifications of the work must themselves be distributed only under the terms of the original free license -- or else they are non-copyleft, which means that the licensed work may be modified and then distributed under a different license, even one that is less free.

Most free-content licenses contain provisions specifying that derivative works must attribute or give credit to the authors of the original, a requirement which promotes intellectual honesty and discourages plagiarism without imposing so great a burden as to weaken the claim of such licenses to being truly free.

The w:en:Design Science License (DSL) and GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) are copyleft licenses for free content. The w:en:FreeBSD Documentation License is an example of a non-copyleft license. The w:en:GNU General Public License (GPL) can also be used as a free content license.

Some Creative commons licenses are free, not all of them[edit]

The Creative Commons License refers to the name of several copyright licenses (4). It offers a flexible copyright for creative work.

There are four key license conditions.
Mixing and matching these conditions produces sixteen possible combinations, of which eleven are valid Creative Commons licenses. Of the five invalid combinations, four include both the "nd" and "sa" clauses, which are mutually exclusive; and one includes none of the clauses, which is essentially the same thing as releasing into the public domain. The licenses without the attribution clause are being phased out because 98% of licensors requested Attribution.

License conditions

  • Attribution (by): Permit others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work and derivative works based upon it only if they give you credit.
  • Noncommercial (nc): Permit others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work and derivative works based upon it only for noncommercial purposes.
  • No Derivative Works (nd): Permit others to copy, distribute, display and perform only verbatim copies of the work, not derivative works based upon it.
  • Share Alike (sa): Permit others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work. (See also copyleft).

Currently, Wikipedia requests attribution and share alike. It may goes by CC-by-sa.

CC-by-sa does not fit all artists wishes to share, nor all artistic work.

Many artists want their work to be distributed and shared by many users, but certainly do not want other people to make benefit thanks to their work (hence the nc condition). Similarly, a writer may desire that a pamphlet he wrote be largely distributed, but may not wish that his words are freely modified and his thoughts deformed or a painter does not wish a drawing be tagged by anyone (hence the nd conditions). Using a type of license such as the CC allows much more flexibility, but it requires to explain exactly which type of license was chosen.

Some of the CC licenses are free content licenses when commercial use and derivative works are not restricted, although they do not require a "source" copy of the license be provided.

However, note that not all Creative Commons licenses are free content as defined above (for example, not free when they do not cover derivative works).