Harvard University’s Berkman Center, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute recently released a report on copyright and open licensing for private philanthropic foundations.

The report examines:

[…] the copyright licensing policies and practices of a group of twelve private foundations. In particular, it looked at the extent to which charitable foundations are aware of and have begun to use open licenses such as Creative Commons or the GPL. We surveyed foundation staff and leaders and examined a number of examples where foundations have begun to take advantage of new licensing models for materials and resources produced by their own staff, their consultants and their grantees.

Unfortunately for the most part the report does not distinguish between knowledge licenses which are fully open, allowing any kind of re-use such as Creative Commons Attribution, from those which are more restrictive such as the CC No-derivatives or Non-commercial licenses (the Open Knowledge Definition aims to clarify this distinction). However they do note:

Creative Commons also encourages the use of CC BY Attribution-only licenses wherever possible […]. The more restrictive the licenses, the fewer uses and reuses will be possible, and the more likely that an incompatibility with other licenses may arise down the road. (p. 45)

The report identifies a number of reasons why open licensing might be an attractive option for private foundations, including:

  • Furthering the core components of the foundation’s philanthropic mission.
  • Serving to expand the size and speed of the dissemination and visibility of supported work in ways that mere placement of those works on grantee or foundation websites rarely could, because of the “viral” spread of materials that open licenses allow. The foundation is able to “do more good with the same money.” To take an analogous example from the open access context, studies in more than a dozen disciplines show that “OA articles are cited 50-250% more often than non-OA articles published in the same issues of the same journals,” and have greater impact than those not freely available, a trend that appears to be increasing over time. Thus, for example, the Wellcome Foundation sees unrestricted access as a 2fundamental part of its charitable mission and a public benefit.”
  • Enhancing distribution and use of foundation works by greatly increasing the ease and lowering the transaction costs of users obtaining “permission” to share and reuse the works. In the absence of open licenses, users have to seek specific, individual approval for most uses or distribution, a process that often delays or deters such uses.
  • Increasing the impact of the foundation’s funding even more when the open license permits the work to be freely tested, translated, combined, remixed, repurposed or otherwise built upon, potentially by many subsequent researchers, authors, artists or other creators anywhere in the world, as the basis for new innovation, discovery or creation. Allowing broad adaptation and follow-on innovation can provide a magnification or leveraging of the original foundation funding that would be difficult to achieve otherwise.
  • Leveraging and extending the reach and impact of the original funded work to an even-greater degree in developing countries through the ready spread and sharing of knowledge and the freedom to reuse, remix and build upon the knowledge in ways that may be uniquely valuable to local users.
  • Serving to bring a broader group of users, scholars or institutions into the creative process, stimulating immediate exchanges of ideas, knowledge and research among researchers or researchers and research users, provoking conversation and fostering the development of new collaborations and communities.

The report goes on to say:

Why not? At the end of the day, a foundation can perhaps best advance its own consideration of open licenses by asking, and then examining carefully, whether there are specific and credible reasons not to encourage or require that a particular work it funded be made available through an open license. In many cases the answer to that question is likely to be “no.” In such cases, a foundation will benefit itself and the public good by seizing the new opportunities that open licenses present and beginning to take concrete steps toward adopting them. (p. 30)

This question is reiterated at the end of the report, which closes with a quote from Mark Surman:

We certainly believe that there is enough potential here that others –
foundations, governments, research institutes, universities – should be looking at open licensing very seriously. 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. There are also 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.

Indeed: why not?

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Dr. Jonathan Gray is Lecturer in Critical Infrastructure Studies at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London, where he is currently writing a book on data worlds. He is also Cofounder of the Public Data Lab; and Research Associate at the Digital Methods Initiative (University of Amsterdam) and the médialab (Sciences Po, Paris). More about his work can be found at jonathangray.org and he tweets at @jwyg.

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