Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Open Source Journalism

Today I am publishing an interview with Jay Rosen, New York University journalism professor, and long-time campaigner for the press to engage more effectively with the public.

From 1993 to 1997 Rosen was the director of The Project on Public Life and the Press, founded to further "public journalism" — a movement that emerged in the US in the early 1990s to try and encourage the press to take a more active role in strengthening citizenship, improving political debate, and reviving public life.

Public journalism, Rosen argues, failed in its aims. Moreover, the advent of the Web has shifted the discussion from public journalism to citizen journalism, and raised the possibility that the blogosphere will make the press increasingly irrelevant.

Rather than viewing this as a threat, says Rosen, what journalists now need to do is to work with bloggers to create a new form of Open Source Journalism.

This is number four of The Basement Interviews, the introduction of which I am publishing on my blog. The full article (including introduction) is available as a downloadable PDF file (see below for details). The interview is being published under a Creative Commons licence.

Open Source Journalism
Jay Rosen, press critic, writer, and New York University journalism professor, talks to Richard Poynder

Jay Rosen was born in Buffalo, NY, in 1956. Both sides of his family were Jewish immigrants from Poland: one grandfather arrived in North America via New York, the other via Toronto. Rosen's branch of the family subsequently settled in Buffalo, in order to "get away from" the Toronto grandfather.

As he grew up Rosen, in his turn, dreamed of getting away: away from the "comfortable deprivation" and "thinness" of the "white-bread post-war working-class suburb of a typical American city" that he felt Buffalo to be; away from the enforced passivity and loneliness of the suburban house with the always-on television — a world in which citizens were spectators, not participants, in the events of the nation.

By his own account Rosen's education was "pretty incoherent". After flunking out as an architecture major at Carnegie Mellon he changed subjects several times, before eventually graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

In his final year of college, Rosen decided that he wanted to become a political reporter, probably in Washington; an ambition that crystallised during a successful internship at his local paper — the Buffalo Courier Express. The editor was sufficiently impressed that he promised Rosen a journalist's position when he graduated.

On his return to college, however, Rosen began to fret that — for someone planning to escape the 'burbs — he was not being very adventurous. So he decided to look for another job, and unwittingly applied for the position he had already been promised but which had been advertised to meet union requirements. When he turned up to claim the post, the furious editor had the security guards throw him out, outraged that Rosen had accepted a job with his paper, and then looked elsewhere.

Forced to start over, Rosen opted to change directions, and enrolled in a media studies PhD program at New York University (NYU). Casting around for a suitable topic to research, he stumbled across a famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey about "the public" — a debate sparked by the publication of Lippman's book Public Opinion.

Fascinated by the discussion, Rosen decided to write his dissertation around the debate. Entitled The Impossible Press, Rosen’s thesis argued that while the press had an important democratic role to play in helping the public to form opinions, this was a difficult task, and journalists had to keep re-discovering how to accomplish it. He later concluded that they had entirely forgotten how to do so, and now only paid lip service to the role.

Becoming a member of the NYU faculty in 1986, Rosen went on to devote his professional career to exploring the delicate and complex relationship between the press and the public. Gaining a reputation for having an acute insight and understanding of the press' role in a democracy, Rosen became a leading figure in the reform movement known as "public journalism" — which emerged in the US in the early 1990s in order to encourage journalists to repair their relationship with the public.

From 1993 to 1997 Rosen was the director of The Project on Public Life and the Press. Funded by the Knight Foundation, and housed at NYU, the project's goal was to support the movement for public journalism by holding meetings for those interested in the topic, encouraging the press to undertake experiments and projects, and then studying the results. And in 1999 Rosen published a book on the topic called What Are Journalists For?

In retrospect, Rosen believes that the public journalism movement had little impact on the press, whose disconnect with the public today has reached the point where something is seriously wrong with the relationship.

More importantly, the development of the Web, and especially the blogosphere, has broken journalists' monopoly on news reporting. Consequently, cautions Rosen, unless it adapts the press risks being sidelined, and becoming increasingly irrelevant.

This threat, he adds, is the same threat currently confronting many other professional information gatekeepers in the networked world. "All kinds of knowledge monopolies — and positions of authority based on them — are wearing away … [and] … the professionals who have gained control of institutions of various kinds — including politics — are not going to have that kind of control anymore."

As such, says Rosen, the Web has shifted the debate away from the need for journalists to embrace public journalism, to a discussion about how the public is now able to do its own reporting, by means of citizen journalism and blogging.

The problem, says Rosen, is that while the Web may appear to empower the public to do its own reporting, the reality is that the world — particularly its social and political institutions — is just too dense and complicated for ordinary citizens to penetrate. However revolutionary and inherently democratic the Internet may be, therefore, we still need professional journalists to interpret the world, and explain things to us.

Rather than viewing the blogosphere as separate from the press, therefore, Rosen believes journalists now have to share journalism with bloggers, and develop a new collaborative relationship; a relationship in which members of the public and professional journalists cooperate to create a superior form of journalism.

After all, as journalists are increasingly discovering (to their chagrin), bloggers are extremely adept at locating and exposing errors in news reports, demonstrating the extent to which in an online world the "code" of news reporting has become more transparent and open.

Essentially, Rosen's vision is a form of Open Source Journalism, which is how his publishers portray it in describing his new book By the People. "Ultimately”, the editorial review on Amazon reads, “Rosen argues that the press must become even more interactive, following the 'open-source' model of the software world, if it is to reinvigorate the public’s trust in the people who report the news."

Indeed, the beauty of the open source model when applied to news reporting is not just that it leads to greater accuracy (as Eric Raymond might have put it: "given enough eyeballs, all [news] bugs are shallow"), but it provides an ideal way to encourage the public to participate more fully in the affairs of their nation, rather than just sitting passively watching events unfold on their television sets — in the way Rosen did as a child.

Moreover, bloggers are proving that they can be as effective as the press when it comes to sourcing news stories too — as demonstrated in December 2003, when Minnesota-based Doug McGill broke the news to the world that a wave of genocidal killings was taking place in Ethiopia.

The problem is that cooperation does not come naturally to anyone accustomed to enjoying a monopoly. Additionally, journalists are facing this challenge to their authority at a time when their relationship with the public is at an all-time low, and the traditional newspaper business model has run out of steam.***

Newspaper companies, says Rosen, find themselves standing over a kind of canyon today. "Right now they have got to the lip of this canyon, and they are all looking at it, and saying: 'I can’t get across that. Can you get across that?' But what are they going to do: go back?”

But if they don’t get across, he says, the capacity to effectively report the news every day could be “lost".


Before interviewing Rosen I became a regular visitor to his blog, PressThink. What immediately struck me was that in place of the standard information snippets, short personal comments, and links to other sites, Rosen publishes long analytical essays, most of which are pretty dense.

This, however, appears to present little barrier to Rosen's fans. Indeed, in 2005 PressThink won a Reporters Without Borders Freedom Blog Award for “defending freedom of expression.”

A slim bespectacled man, Rosen clearly has an inherently cerebral approach to life, and my conversation with him was therefore predictably challenging: I found myself having to grapple with abstract ideas and unfamiliar intellectual concepts. At times I was also frustrated that, like many people with a complex understanding of the world, Rosen is more inclined to raise interesting questions than provide clear answers.

Unlike many intellectuals, however, he is neither self-important nor arrogant, and many of his answers ended with a small self-deprecatory laugh, as if signalling to me that he was fully aware that there are other — some possibly better — ideas out there but, for what it was worth, this was his view.

He also appears anxious not to seem overly professorial. Having initially decided to call his blog "Master Narrative," for instance, Rosen experienced a last-minute crisis of confidence. Concluding that the title was too pretentious, and so might attract parody, he changed it to PressThink. The irony, perhaps, is that many may feel PressThink to be just as highbrow a title.

In short, Rosen seems to be a reluctant intellectual; a man who might have preferred his career to have been more directly connected with the real world, and real events. An early ambition, after all, was to become a Washington reporter, and I sensed a little regret that he had ended up in an ivory tower. At the same time, he evidently accepts that ultimately he is, as he himself puts it, "more of a critic and intellectual than a reporter type".

Unlike most of those I have spoken to in the various free and open movements, Rosen takes no interest in hot topics like digital rights management (DRM), copyright and intellectual property. He is also unconcerned about who owns information, and has little interest in access issues.

But why should he? From the consumer’s point of view the Internet is driving down the costs of news information, and so increasingly removing any access barriers. Consequently Rosen is able to look beyond the issue of information's availability, and focus on the need to make it available in a way that inspires the public to participate — in their government, in their nation, and in their town.

It is interesting to note that while Rosen's message is very different to Richard Stallman's, they both believe that the free sharing of knowledge and information serves a vital social and political function in human communities. Indeed, although his concern is news information (rather than software code), in talking to Rosen I was reminded of Stallman's comment to me that "sharing knowledge is an important way in which people cooperate. To refuse to tell someone what he needs to know is hostile."

Or as Rosen puts it, "the enemy of democracy is inscrutable power and opaque institutions."

Unlike Stallman, however, Rosen does not believe it is enough to make information freely and transparently available. When reporting news, he argues, it is essential to present the information in a way that stimulates people to become involved in their community. "As a professor of journalism," he explains, "a lot of my work has been trying to get journalists to recognise in their work that the 'feeling yourself a participant' part is basic to any demand that may exist for their skills and services."

Above all Rosen's message is a timely reminder that however democratic and transformative the Web may potentially be, it is in itself essentially only an information distribution channel. While information may (in Stewart Brand's famous phrase) "want to be free," it is often inadequate, or even worthless, unless and until it has been digested, evaluated, and interpreted.

And that, says Rosen, is why we still need journalists.

*** There could have been no better demonstration of this, perhaps, than the recent news (coming some months after this interview took place) that Knight Ridder, the second largest newspaper company in the US, has decided to sell all 32 of its newspapers to smaller rival McClatchy. As the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of business points out, the sale follows one of the most difficult years the industry has had, with declining circulation, job losses and falling stock prices. "Newspapers, it would seem, have two big strikes against them: They are in a mature industry and they are a textbook example (stockbrokers are another) of an intermediary between sources of information and customers — a role that is being increasingly challenged by the Internet."


If you wish to read this interview in its entirety please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

If after reading it you feel it is well done you might like to consider making a small contribution to my PayPal account. I have in mind a figure of $8, but whatever anyone felt inspired to contribute would be fine by me. Payment can be made quite simply by quoting the e-mail account: aotg20@dsl.pipex.com. It is not necessary to have a PayPal account to make a payment.

What I would ask is that if you point anyone else to the article then you consider directing them to this post, rather than directly to the PDF file itself.

If you would like to republish the article on a commercial basis, or have any comments on it, please email me at richard.poynder@journalist.co.uk.

I would like to acknowledge the help of the Open Society Institute, which provided a small upfront grant to enable me to get started on The Basement Interviews project. Further information about The Basement Interviews can be found at the Open and Shut? site.

To read the interview in its entirety (as a PDF file) click here.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Interview with Eric Raymond

Today I am publishing an interview with Eric Raymond President Emeritus and Co-Founder of the Open Source Initiative.

A hacker himself since the 1970s, Raymond has always taken an interest in hacker culture. When the Free Software Movement took off in the 1990s, therefore, he set out to try and understand how — contrary to all expectations — hackers were able to develop technically superior software, not least the now ubiquitous GNU/Linux operating system. The result was the highly influential essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which was published in 1997.

When, a year later, Netscape decided to open the source code of its browser (and indicated that it had been partly influenced by Raymond's essay), Raymond and a number of other Free Software supporters responded by founding the Open Source Initiative (OSI) — with the aim of re-branding Free Software as Open Source Software and making it more palatable to the "suits".Today Open Source software has become mainstream, and much of the credit for this must go to Raymond.

This is the third of The Basement Interviews, the introduction of which I am publishing on my blog. The full article (including introduction) is available as a downloadable PDF file (see below for details). This is published under a Creative Commons licence.

Open Source

Eric Raymond, President Emeritus and Co-Founder of the Open Source Initiative, speaks to Richard Poynder

Eric Raymond was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1957, the oldest of five children. His father worked as a computer programmer for Sperry Univac, which meant that for the first thirteen years of his life Raymond lived in a succession of foreign countries, including Italy, Venezuela and England. On their return the family settled in Pennsylvania.

Raymond was an extremely bright child with a mild case of cerebral palsy, a combination that was to blight his childhood, and made him a victim of frequent bullying. This, coupled with the strict discipline he experienced during his Catholic education, was to make Raymond deeply suspicious of any kind of power, and turn him into an anti-authoritarian. As he puts it: "I had a lot of childhood experiences which demonstrated that the only times people used force was when they wanted to beat me up."

As a young man Raymond’s interests included math, philosophy, and music. Having to constantly adjust to new schools, new languages, and new cultures, he had also developed what he calls his "alien anthropologist mode" — a frame of mind he was later to use to great effect as the self-elected "tribal historian and resident ethnographer" of the Open Source and Free Software movements.

As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania Raymond was immediately marked out as a potential math prodigy. Having found school insufficiently stretching for his above average talents, however, he lacked the necessary discipline or emotional maturity to cope with the demands of an undergraduate course, and after suffering a "math burnout" left without a degree.

His time at Penn was not wasted however: while ducking classes Raymond taught himself programming, and for the next five years he worked as a programmer for a number of technology companies.

Eventually concluding that he "didn’t fit into the conventional corporate framework", in 1985 Raymond changed direction to become an independent consultant, and freelance writer. His first book project, written while sitting out a year's retainer with his last employer, Rabbit Software, was Portable C and UNIX Systems Programming. Released under the pen name J E Lapin the book was published in 1987.

A close friend of Richard Stallman's in the 1970s, Raymond was an early convert to the Free Software Movement, and contributed to Stallman's GNU Project, although the extent and significance of that involvement is a source of disagreement between Raymond and Stallman today. Raymond also contributed to a number of other Free Software projects, including the Gosmacs editor.

Becoming increasingly interested in hacker culture, in 1990 Raymond took over the Jargon File — a collection of hacker slang originally created at Stanford in 1975.

When the first copies of the GNU/Linux operating system began to circulate in the 1990s, therefore, Raymond was well placed to report on what he quickly saw to be the most significant achievement of the Free Software Movement to date. Indeed, the story he subsequently told about the development of the Linux kernel has become the dominant narrative of the Open Source Movement.

Raymond concluded that what was most radical about GNU/Linux was not so much that it was the first free operating system, but that in developing the Linux kernel Linus Torvalds had invented a totally new method for creating software. Moreover, in doing so he had contravened the cardinal rule of software engineering.

Since the 1970s any programmer worth his salt had implicitly believed Brooks' Law. This held that the only reliable way of developing software was to create small, centrally controlled, hierarchically structured teams of professional developers, and have them beaver away in monkish isolation — a method that Brooks characterised as being akin to the way in which Reims Cathedral had been built .

By contrast, Linux had been created by thousands of geographically distributed hackers collaborating over the Internet. With frequent releases, and constant user feedback, Linux had emerged, said Raymond, out of "a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches".

Brooks' Law implied that such an anarchic approach would have inevitably ended in chaotic disarray. Instead, contrary to all expectations, the developers of Linux had created a kernel that not only worked, but was technically superior. Raymond concluded that this success was based on the principle that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow''.

Keen to share his insights, Raymond penned The Cathedral & the Bazaar — an essay that not only offered a compelling explanation of how the Free Software Movement had enabled such a model to arise, but turned out to have articulated something that all hackers knew subliminally, but had never brought to consciousness.

By providing this "generative myth", says Raymond, he gave the community the necessary focus to capitalise on the model that Torvalds and the other Linux developers had accidentally created. The value in doing so, he explains, is that unless you "organise people's perceptions of isolated facts even the most innovative set of innovations may languish in the margins of the economy for a long time."

It turned out that some "suits" also found Raymond's narrative compelling. In January 1998 Netscape released the source code for the Netscape browser, in the hope that a community effort could achieve what Netscape on its own could not: hold back Microsoft's approaching monopoly on the web browser market. As the Netscape press release put it, the aim was "to harness the creative power of thousands of programmers on the Internet by incorporating their best enhancements into future versions of Netscape's software."

To Raymond's immense satisfaction, Netscape executives indicated that their decision had been influenced by The Cathedral & the Bazaar.

Dubbed by Raymond "a shot heard around the world", Netscape's move not only provided an unexpected PR fillip for Free Software, but raised the possibility that it could gain mindshare in corporate boardrooms as well as among hackers.

Believing that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity had arisen, Raymond concluded that it was essential to "re-brand" Free Software. His fear was that while Fortune 500 companies might be amenable to an ethically neutral argument about efficiency improvements, the Free Software Foundation's moralising about the ethical imperatives of making software free would only alienate them. In February 1998, therefore, Raymond flew to the West coast to meet with a group of like-minded people, and co-founded the Open Source Initiative.

Raymond's message was simple: in a world in which software development is constantly growing in complexity small groups of isolated programmers working in secret can no longer deliver the goods. Today, therefore, success depends on making software code freely available, and allowing as many people as possible to "peer review" and test it. As he succinctly puts it "secrecy is the enemy of quality."

It was a powerful message, and throughout 1998 a growing roll call of influential software companies — including IBM, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Informix, and Corel — announced initiatives to support Open Source. By the end of the year the Movement had acquired a sufficient head of steam that few could ignore it.

Success, however, has come at a price. Not only has Raymond sacrificed his friendship with FSF founder Richard Stallman, but the Movement has been split. While pragmatic Raymondism focuses primarily on marketing the concept of Open Source, idealistic Stallmanism insists that Free Software is an ethical issue; a matter of right versus wrong. By treating the issue as purely a question of efficiency, says Stallman, Raymondism "is not sufficient to give us freedom that is secure". In short, Stallman believes that since Raymondism lacks the conviction that Free Software is an end in itself, it threatens to subvert the aims of the Movement.

Like Stallman, therefore, Raymond has become a controversial figure. For Free Software groupies he is an egotistical pretender who has sold his community down the river. For the pragmatists he is a liberator who, in the words of Raymond's friend Jay Maynard, has freed the Movement "from the straightjacket that Stallman tried to force on it."

What's the reality? We should not doubt that Stallmanist idealism could never have won over either the boardroom or Wall Street. Nor should we doubt, however, that Raymondism has introduced risks, not least that the Movement could be co-opted by large corporations and exploited for their own ends — a danger all the greater in light of the Movement's internal split.

Perhaps the fundamental question the split raises is the extent to which the anarchic ethos of hackers can co-exist with hierarchical corporate culture. For Stallman the question is hardly relevant, since for him ethical issues are always prior. Raymond, however, believes that corporate culture can be gradually subverted. "In reality", he says, "it is we who are co-opting them. We are changing their culture, their products, and their way of doing things much more than they are changing us."

Herein, perhaps, lies a key issue for the wider free knowledge movement: should its aims be to replace traditional proprietary modes, or to establish peaceful co-existence with them? Can the world change dramatically, or will it simply become more variegated? More importantly, is there a risk that if they try too hard to co-exist with traditional proprietary models, the various free and open movements could be appropriated by them, and emasculated in the process?


Interviewing Richard Stallman had felt like being mauled by a bad-tempered grizzly. In preparing to interview Raymond, therefore, I was conscious that, in contrast to the hippy democratic principles espoused by Stallman, Raymond represents Second Amendment libertarianism, and gun rights. Specifically, Raymond is a self-styled market anarchist who believes that citizens have the right to carry guns in order to protect themselves from the government. To a naïve European that seemed a little scary.

I also knew that in 1999 Raymond had famously sent a bruising e-mail threat to OSI co-founder Bruce Perens, who posted the message to a mailing list and indicated that — in the light of Raymond's gun habits — he had alerted the police .

Nor, it seemed, could journalists assume that they would be spared Raymond's hard-man habits. ZDNet columnist John Carroll once characterised engaging with Raymond as akin to taking part in a café debate where Raymond is "the guy at the table trying to take out his opponent's eye with a fork"

Even Raymond's friends were warning me to tread carefully: "Eric cares about some things so deeply that it is hard to hold a rational conversation with him about them," Rob Landley told me.

"If he thinks poorly of you, he'll tell you in great detail and at great length, sometimes whether you want to hear it or not," cautioned Maynard.

What kind of horrors awaited me in interviewing Raymond? I toyed with the idea of flying out to his lair in Pennsylvania, but wimped out, choosing the safer option of a telephone conversation.

In the event, Raymond was a pussycat. He was articulate, reasonable, and very friendly. He was also surprisingly frank, only evading one question. Even when I recklessly suggested that he had proved a Stalin to Stallman's Lenin he simply roared with laughter, replying sardonically: "Comparing me to Stalin! That is the nastiest thing that has happened to me in weeks."

Was it that the chemistry worked in my favour, or had Raymond decided on this occasion to play Mr Nice Guy? When I asked him if his reputation as an irascible interlocutor was justified he replied obliquely: "I invite you to judge by your interaction with me."

But how to judge? Is Eric Raymond the aggressive tub-thumper reaching for a fork to spear his opponent's eye, or the rational and eloquent essayist able to see and articulate the most pragmatic course of action?

Then there is Raymond the hacker; Raymond the gun-toting anarchist; Raymond the SciFi fan; Raymond the "initiate Wiccan priest and coven leader of long standing" ; Raymond the teetotal polyamorist; Raymond the Tae Kwon Do Black Belt; not to mention Raymond the political cynic, for whom democracy "isn’t very interesting".

Once the interview started one thing became clear: it is difficult to have a conversation with Raymond without frequent references to RMS (as Stallman likes to be called online). Indeed, it was hard not to conclude that Raymond has a little bit of a fixation on Stallman — a fixation clearly encouraged by the Open Source community which, says Landley, views Raymond as the "designated alternative to RMS".

Is this fixation mutual? Possibly. When I later e-mailed Raymond some comments Stallman had made about him he copied Stallman into his detailed and self-justificatory reply. This sparked a fascinating e-mail interchange between the two of them, into which I was copied. Judging by these e-mails both men remain very engaged with one another. Sadly, Stallman later decreed that the e-mail conversation had been "off the record".

Interview completed, however, the question remained: who is Eric Raymond? In Revenge of the Hackers he talks of how, when talking to the press, he deliberately sets out to exude "attractive dissonance." To excite journalists, he explains, the trick is to "sound challengingly weird" — to cheerfully discuss guns, anarchism, and witchcraft "while looking as well-groomed, boyishly charming, and all-American wholesome" as possible. He adds that it is important not to fake weirdness but to be genuinely weird.

Nevertheless, it's hard not to feel that much of Raymond's public persona is more spin than substance. At one point in the interview Raymond said that part of his job is to provoke thought, and get people to think about things. He added: "When that is your job description, if you are not pissing off a certain number of people a lot of the time then you are probably not pushing hard enough."

Undoubtedly Raymond has pissed off a lot of people in his time. On the other hand, his well-crafted and persuasive essays have also made a lot of people think.

In the end perhaps it doesn’t really matter whether or not Raymond is weird. In any case, I will leave readers to judge for themselves!


If you wish to read the interview in its entirety please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

If after reading it you feel it is well done you might like to consider making a small contribution to my PayPal account. I have in mind a figure of $8, but whatever anyone felt inspired to contribute would be fine by me. Payment can be made quite simply by quoting the e-mail account: aotg20@dsl.pipex.com. It is not necessary to have a PayPal account to make a payment.

What I would ask is that if you point anyone else to the article then you consider directing them to this post, rather than directly to the PDF file itself.

If you would like to republish the article on a commercial basis, or have any comments on it, please email me at richard.poynder@journalist.co.uk.

I would like to acknowledge the help of the Open Society Institute, which provided a small upfront grant to enable me to get started on The Basement Interviews Project. Further information about The Basement Interviews can be found at the Open and Shut? site.

To read the interview in its entirety (as a PDF file) click here.

A companion interview with Richard Stallman is available here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Interview with Richard Stallman

Today I am publishing an interview with Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Movement, and of the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

In the 1970s, Stallman was a legendary hacker at MIT's AI Lab. He left in 1984 to found the FSF, and to start the GNU project. He is also the author of the GNU General Public Licence (GPL), the licence most widely used by open source software programmers, and the model on which Creative Commons licences are based.

This is the second of The Basement Interviews, the introduction of which I am publishing on my blog. The full article (including introduction) is available as a downloadable PDF file (see below for details). This is published under a Creative Commons licence.

Freeing the Code

Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Movement, speaks to Richard Poynder

Richard Stallman was born in Manhattan, NY, in 1953. An only child whose parents divorced when he was nine, Stallman led a solitary childhood. Talented in math and physics, and with a fascination for reading about ancient civilisations, he became obsessed with computers long before he had access to one, and at the age of nine he was writing computer programs on paper.

His mother remarried, but Stallman never felt he truly had a home until he attended Harvard, where he studied for a degree in physics. In 1971, while still a freshman, Stallman began working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where he became a "hacker", and took part in the development of the AI Lab's fabled operating system, the Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS),

It was at the AI Lab that Stallman developed his ideas about Free Software — a process kick-started by his failed attempt to adapt a Xerox printer to automatically alert users when their print jobs had completed. To do so Stallman needed the printer source code. This was denied him, on the grounds that it was proprietary information.

Angry that without it he was unable to make things better for his colleagues, Stallman began pondering on what he calls "the ethics of the issue." His conclusion: sharing information is an important way in which humans co-operate, so anyone refusing to share source code is committing a hostile act.

But it was a subsequent event that was to prove the real incentive for founding the Free Software Movement. In the early 1980s MIT decided to license the LISP system it was developing to two spin-off companies — Symbolics and LMI — set up by ex-hackers. One of these companies, Symbolics, later announced that it would not allow MIT to copy across to its own system any of the improvements and additions made to the software by Symbolics.

Interpreting this as an aggressive attempt to kill off the MIT system, and so make the AI Lab dependent on Symbolics, Stallman embarked on a legendary hacking campaign, independently replicating on the MIT system all the improvements made by Symbolics (and also passing them on to the competitor spin-off company LMI). Stallman's efforts were later memorialised by author Steven Levy in his book Hackers.

Eventually the AI Lab switched to a newer Symbolics machine — a machine on which the MIT software Stallman had been working on couldn’t run. Concluding that the MIT system was now "non-free software", and convinced that his community had been “destroyed", Stallman decided to launch a project devoted to writing "free software", and in January 1984 he left the AI Lab in order to do so.

From that point on Stallman has dedicated his whole life to the cause of Free Software. In 1984 he launched the GNU project, with the aim of developing a free UNIX-like operating system; in 1985 he founded the Free Software Foundation so that programmers could be employed to help write the GNU system; and in 1989 he created the General Public Licence, or GPL — a revolutionary new type of copyright licence that he dubbed "copyleft".

What is revolutionary about copyleft is that it exploits traditional copyright law — whose very raison d'être is to make creative expression proprietary — to achieve the opposite effect. By attaching a copyleft licence to their software, developers are able to assert ownership, but then give away some of their rights — particularly the right to copy and modify the software in order to allow others to build on it. In doing this, rather than simply placing the software in the public domain, they (the creators) are able to stipulate the terms on which they are making the software freely available, and so control how it is used by others.

To better express his vision, Stallman articulated the “Four Freedoms of Free Software". These are: the freedom to run a program as you wish; the freedom to study the source code and change it to do what you wish; the freedom to make copies and to distribute them to others; and the freedom to publish or, more generally, distribute modified versions.

“I don’t believe that software should be owned," Levy quotes Stallman as saying in 1983, because the practice "sabotages humanity as a whole. It prevents people from getting the maximum benefit out of the program’s existence.”

Nevertheless, Free Software has been widely misunderstood: As Stallman frequently has to stress, Free Software does not imply software that is "free of charge", but software that users are free to run, study, copy, and redistribute modified versions of. As such, its source code must always be freely available, and it must never be made proprietary.

For this reason the GPL doesn’t only specify that software licensed under it must be free, but that the software code must remain free even when it is modified and redistributed. This latter characteristic is often described — to Stallman's ire — as having a viral effect, since it encourages the proliferation of Free Software.

By the early 1990s the GNU operating system was practically complete. However, following the repeated delay of its kernel — the GNU Hurd — the system lacked a vital component. Into this vacuum flowed Linux, a free kernel developed in Finland by Linus Torvalds.

Since Linux was also UNIX-based, it was compatible with the GNU system — so hackers began to combine Linux with the GNU components to create a complete operating system, and a plethora of GNU/Linux "distributions" quickly spread around the world.

To Stallman's growing dismay, however, these distributions were increasingly referred to not as GNU/Linux, but simply Linux — a shortening that not only ignored Stallman's pivotal role but, to his frustration and anger, the philosophy behind Free Software.

To his further dismay, in 1998 the Open Source Initiative was launched. Adopting a more pragmatic and business-oriented approach, open source advocates played up the technical benefits of the GNU/Linux system, and downplayed Stallman's concepts of freedom. In short, the very community he had set out to help was undermining Stallman's aims.

Non-cognoscenti often struggle to understand the subtleties between Open Source and Free Software. After all, both groups believe that the source code of computer programs should be freely available, and most open source software is still licensed under Stallman's GPL.

In those subtleties, however, lies an ideological gulf. On the open source side the emphasis is on creating better, cheaper and more efficient software. Free software advocates, by contrast, continue to stress the philosophy of the four freedoms outlined by Stallman — for FSF advocates it is an issue of ethics and ethical behaviour, not technical superiority.

Open source advocates also highlight the merits of the new software development model pioneered by Torvalds when creating Linux (and compellingly articulated in 1997 by Eric Raymond in his essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar).

In short, by exploiting the Internet, Torvalds was able to organise and co-ordinate thousands of geographically dispersed volunteer developers to write software code in a new and more efficient manner than had historically been possible. Raymond characterised this as being like a bazaar, in which a babble of different agendas and approaches is — somewhat counter-intuitively — able to produce a better end result than the top-down approach famously enunciated in 1975 in by Frederick Brooks in his book The Mythical Man-Month.

Brooks' view was that writing software is like building Reims Cathedral. As such, he argued, its design "must proceed from one mind, or from a small number of agreeing resonant minds." Raymond, however, argued that the Bazaar approach developed by Torvalds both speeds up development time, and reduces the number of bugs. As he put it: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." In other words, given a large enough pool of peer reviewers, every problem will be obvious to someone, and so fixed.

Since Free Software is about ethics, not efficiency, for Stallman such technical benefits are merely a bonus, not an essential requirement. Moreover, he argues, focusing on technical superiority distracts people from the underlying philosophy of Free Software.

But asked to choose between Free Software and Open Source software, and often struggling to understand the philosophy of Free Software, hackers increasingly embraced the Open Source vision — which rapidly acquired greater mindshare than the more rigorous ethical approach promulgated by Stallman.

As a consequence, says Stallman, it is now hard to find a distribution of GNU/Linux that meets the FSF's definition of free, and "the goal of making a completely free operating system has been not just forgotten but almost totally cancelled."

Unprepared to compromise over the dilution of the free software philosophy, and a frequent critic of the Open Source Movement, Stallman has become a controversial figure.

Nevertheless, the GPL remains a core component of both the Free and Open Source software (FOSS) movements. Whether it can maintain this centrality, however, is debatable. Current attempts to develop Version 3.0 of the licence have attracted considerable criticism. Specifically, the new licence's attempts to prevent the merging of free and proprietary software into a single system, and its anti-patent and anti-DRM provisions have not been well received by some. In January, for instance, Torvalds indicated that he did not intend to convert Linux to v3 because of its digital rights management (DRM) provisions.

Indeed, many are predicting that GPLv3 could further marginalise Stallman. Writing recently in c|net, for instance, the president of the Association for Competitive Technology Jonathan Zuck commented: "Stallman and the Free Software Foundation have every right to continue their ideological crusade against proprietary software, but will anyone follow?" ***

Few, however, dispute the seminal contribution Stallman made to what one might call the wider "free knowledge movement", and he remains a force to be reckoned with. The GPL has also been highly influential outside the software space. The increasingly popular range of Creative Commons licences, for instance, is a direct extension of copyleft principles to other media, including text, video, and music.

In recent years, Stallman has also become a very effective campaigner against corporate and government attempts to allow software to be patented, and he is an energetic and constant critic of digital rights management, which he prefers to call "digital restrictions management".

In 1990 Stallman received a $240,000 MacArthur fellowship. This ended in 1995, and today he survives courtesy of the constant speaking invitations he receives. He is, he says, now like a medieval king, who has to keep moving in order not to be too great a financial burden on his subjects.


I catch up with Stallman in Brussels, Belgium, where he has come to attend a public demonstration against software patents. He is ensconced in an apartment in the French quarter, across the way from a chestnut-tree-lined park that, on this sunny afternoon, is home to a medley of prams, dogs, bikes, and flies.

Stallman himself answers the door. Without his shoes on, he is considerably smaller than I envisaged. His long curly black hair, now going grey, and untidy shaggy beard make him the very picture of what my wife's Scottish Aunt Nonie would have called a "Heery Oobie" [aka hairy hippie].

His green eyes meet mine unemotionally; they seem almost puzzled. As he appears unsure of the formalities I push my way in and shake his hand. We climb a flight of stairs and walk into a long room with a wooden parquet floor partially covered with red rugs.

At the stair end is a wooden table and benches. On the table is placed a bottle of red wine, some cheese and a bag of chocolate chip cookies. At the other end of the room is a long green wooden bay window. Positioned around the room are several pieces of antique wooden furniture, possibly walnut. In one corner is a large TV; in another a hi-fi system. On the floor is a very large toy bear.

We move across to the window end where two large sofas are positioned beside each other to form an L-shape, both also covered with red rugs. A nearby coffee table is heaped with books and paper.

Stallman sits on a sofa with his back to the window, a laptop computer whirring beside him. I perch on the other sofa, beside a beautiful black cat that sleeps throughout the interview. Stallman is wearing a red T-shirt that sits uncomfortably on his potbelly. I note that half way along his forearm, up and over his elbow, is a long scar — a remnant of several painful operations following a bad fall in an icy airport in Finland.

I have already had a couple of phone conversations with Stallman, during which he revealed himself to be a somewhat bad-tempered interviewee. An odd mixture of the amiable and the irascible, he is willing to share oceans of time with journalists and email enquirers, but snappish and irritable when answering their questions.

Today he is especially crotchety. As he talks his voice oscillates between a pleasant Jack-Nicholson-like baritone and the peeved falsetto of a frustrated adolescent; the latter occurring whenever he concludes that his interlocutor is being obtuse, or asking stupid questions.

Before we start Stallman walks to the hi-fi and inserts a CD. It turns out to be The Antenna Repairmen, an "experimental percussion trio" with a passion for ceramic instruments; these range from udu drums and bowls, to tubes, vases, and ghatams. As a consequence, our conversation is interspersed with odd percussive noises, and the muffled rattle-and-cracking sound one might envisage emanating from the kitchen of an inebriated chef. All in all, it seems an appropriate accompaniment to Stallman's querulous mood.

For the first part of the interview Stallman lounges on the sofa minutely examining his split ends, and picking at his hands and T-shirt. Every now and then he sits upright and snaps: "That is total confusion; I can't answer that"; or: "I don't understand what you are talking about." At one point he accuses me of misrepresenting something he said; another time he complains that my questions are driving him "nuts".

When I counter that he is a somewhat combative person he gets up from the sofa and spends the rest of the interview on his feet, occasionally taking sauntering walks to the further reaches of the room to grab a chocolate chip cookie, now and then throwing out his feet in small dance kicks. (In his younger days, Stallman was a folk dancing aficionado.) At one point he begins playing with and pummelling the large toy bear on the floor.

Two hours later the black cat sleeping next to me gets up, stretches, and starts to scratch the rug on the sofa. I take this as a signal for me to depart.

As I am about to leave, however, Stallman engages me in conversation again at the stair head. Having earlier refused to comment on anyone from the Open Source Movement, he now invites me to sit at the wooden table at the end of the room, and turn my tape recorder back on. Then, between mouthfuls of cheese, he starts to complain about how Eric Raymond always exaggerates his early contribution to Free Software. Raymond does this, Stallman asserts, in order to give his later apostasy greater weight.

With this extra material on tape I slip back into the sunny streets of Brussels, conscious that a film crew will shortly arrive to interview Stallman in connection with a documentary they are working on.

Stallman's parting had been as abrupt and unceremonious as his welcome. Walking back to my hotel I conclude that, struggle as he might to connect with others, and impatient as he may become with them, Stallman craves the company of people. Indeed, I formed the impression that he had held me back not because he wanted to rant about Raymond, but simply because he didn’t want to have to sit on his own until the film crew arrived.

*** This interview was undertaken before the process of drafting GPLv3 began. Consequently there is no discussion of it with Stallman.


If you wish to read the interview in its entirety please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

If after reading it you feel it is well done you might like to consider making a small contribution to my PayPal account. I have in mind a figure of $8, but whatever anyone felt inspired to contribute would be fine by me. Payment can be made quite simply by quoting the e-mail account: aotg20@dsl.pipex.com. It is not necessary to have a PayPal account to make a payment.

What I would ask is that if you point anyone else to the article then you consider directing them to this post, rather than directly to the PDF file itself.

If you would like to republish the article on a commercial basis, or have any comments on it, please email me at richard.poynder@journalist.co.uk.

I would like to acknowledge the help of the Open Society Institute, which provided a small upfront grant to enable me to get started on The Basement Interviews project. Further information about The Basement Interviews can be found at the Open and Shut? site.

To read the interview in its entirety (as a PDF file) click

A companion interview with Eric Raymond is available here.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Where is the Open Access Foundation?

While the term Open Access (OA) has its origins in the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), the concept and practice of OA has been around for at least fifteen years. Yet today there is no single universally agreed definition of OA. Not only is this unsatisfactory, but it is allowing opponents and foot-draggers to dilute OA's purpose. What the OA movement needs, suggests Richard Poynder, is a canonical definition of OA and an official organisation charged with overseeing and certifying OA initiatives.

Recently I received a press release from The Biochemical Society informing me that the entire back archive of the Society’s flagship journal the Biochemical Journal (BJ) had been digitised and is now freely available online.

As a result all 392 copies of the journal published since its launch in 1906 (340,000 pages) are now freely available on the Web. This cornucopia, the press release added, includes seminal papers that have “shaped the face of modern cellular and molecular biology”.

There is no doubt that this valuable addition to the corpus of freely available biochemical research is a welcome development, and everyone who helped to make it happen should be applauded — not least the Wellcome Trust and JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), who provided funding for the project.

Open Access?

However, the news prompted me to wonder how (if at all) the project would further the aims and objectives of the Open Access Movement. After all, the primary focus of OA is to make newly published research freely available on the Web, not historical backfiles.

I was also not clear whether BJ is itself an open access journal. So I emailed the PR Company that had sent me the press release to find out. A short while later I received the answer: “I've had a chat with Audrey McCulloch at the Biochemical Society and she confirms that the Biochemical Journal is indeed an open access journal.”

This surprised me because when I looked at the BJ web site I found a page containing a long list of subscription options. These indicated that it costs from £1,630.00 to £2,118.00 a year to subscribe to BJ.

Of course, there is no reason why a publisher should not charge a subscription for its print journal while making its papers freely available on the Web. Nor is there any reason to assume that people would not subscribe to a print journal in such circumstances. Looking at the BJ website, however, this did not seem to be the case.

As I was scratching my head over this I received an e-mail from Audrey McCulloch herself. “Perhaps I should clarify in what sense BJ is an 'open access' journal,” she wrote. “As soon as a manuscript is accepted for publication, the raw manuscript (as submitted to us by the author) is published online as an 'Immediate Publication'. You can find further details of this at http://www.biochemj.org/bj/imps/toc.htm. These [preprints] are freely available."

She continued: "Authors manuscripts then go through the copyediting, proofreading, typesetting and other processes and are published in print and online in journal issues. These 'value-added' publications are subscription-only for six months after they are published, and then made freely available."

So this means, I asked, that preprints are open access, but published articles are only available to paying subscribers? "Yes, that's correct,” confirmed McCulloch. “The typeset (value-added) articles are Toll Access [TA] for the first six months after publication only. The immediate publications remain freely available at all times (i.e. access to these is not turned off during the six months toll-only access to the typeset articles).”

In other words, the BJ backfile includes everything the journal has published up to six months ago.

Somewhat slippery definition

But this struck me as a somewhat slippery definition of an OA journal. After all, OA journals make the final PDF of articles they publish available online immediately, not six months after publication.

However, looking at the BJ web site I could see that its authors were also encouraged to self-archive their papers.

As BJ's FAQ puts it, if you publish a paper in the journal you can “after obtaining our permission (which would not be withheld unreasonably) and provided that the journal is acknowledged as the original source .. [mount] .. the PDF file of the electronic version of your article on your personal web site, provided you include the following statement: 'Mounted on the Internet with permission from Portland Press (year of publication)'"

(Portland Press is the wholly owned publishing subsidiary of The Biochemical Society and publisher of BJ).

In other words, BJ is a green journal, and a liberal one at that. Indeed, some OA advocates would argue that BJ's self-archiving policy is sufficient in itself.

But while this makes BJ a green journal, it is inaccurate to describe it as an OA (i.e. gold) journal. (See here for further details on the distinction between green and gold OA).

After all, if we accept that BJ is an OA journal because it allows self-archiving, because it releases the final PDF on the Web on an embargoed basis, or because it makes preprints freely available on the Web, then we surely have to conclude that many — if not all — the 93% of journals that currently endorse author self-archiving are also OA journals, including those published by the largest scholarly publisher, Reed Elsevier.

What is an OA journal?

What do we conclude from this? I think we can confidently infer that the Biochemical Society's characterisation of BJ as an OA journal was not intended to mislead me, but simply further evidence (if it were needed) that many people continue to be confused about OA.

Indeed, OA advocates themselves are still puzzling over definitions and labels. Last week, for instance, Springer's Jan Velterop wondered aloud on his blog what constitutes an OA journal. Are they, he asked, "journals that publish OA articles, or journals that publish only OA articles?"

The same question, he said, applies when seeking to define an open access publisher. After all, he said, if one restricts the term to those who only publish OA papers "one risks overlooking — no, one overlooks — all the open access articles that are published in journals that are not exclusively open access."

"Good point," responded OA advocate Peter Suber on his blog. "The BMC [BioMed Central] journals, for example, are unmistakably OA, but most provide OA only to their original research articles, not to their review articles."

Exploring the issue further, Suber added, "One property of OA journals is that they provide OA to their OA articles themselves and don't merely permit authors to do it through OA archiving. But that doesn't settle the question whether a certain portion of a journal's articles must be OA for the journal itself to be considered OA."

He continued: "It would be tempting to conclude that 'full OA journals' and 'hybrid OA journals' differ only in degree, not in kind. But that's not quite accurate either, since there's an important difference, in kind, between journals who let authors choose between OA and TA and journals that have already decided to make all their articles (of a certain kind) OA."

How, I wondered, would self-archiving advocate Stevan Harnad answer Velterop's questions. "I think a fairer and more logical statement is that there are OA publishers, TA publishers, and hybrid OA/TA publishers," he replied. "However, I would insist that a publisher that makes all his articles OA online is a 100% OA publisher even if he still sells TA paper subscriptions, since OA isn't and never was, about free access to paper editions."

He added: "the target content for OA, by the way, is only peer-reviewed research articles, not all articles, nor even all articles that appear in peer-reviewed journals: journals like Science and Nature , after all, publish commissioned news items and reviews too, by staff writers."

We might usefully add here that an OA journal also makes its papers freely available immediately, not (à la BJ) six months after publication — but more on that later.

Clearly there is an ongoing debate here. But Velterop, of course, has his own agenda. He was appointed Director of Open Access at Springer last year, and so is clearly keen both to promote Springer's Open Choice initiative, and to stress Springer's OA-friendliness.

Indeed, those with a more suspicious nature may be inclined to conclude that Velterop would dearly love to redefine OA to better suit the needs of his new employer.

What is certain is that as a former publisher at BioMed Central — and long-time OA advocate — Velterop understands the issues only too well. As such he was surely not posing his questions purely in a spirit of philosophical enquiry.

All things to all men

What is also clear is that however benign the Biochemical Society's misrepresentation of BJ as an OA journal, and however exploratory Velterop's comments may have been, there are some scholarly publishers — and those who represent publishers' interests — who are more than happy to exploit the current ambiguities surrounding OA.

In fact, the signs have been there for some time. I personally drew attention to the issue two and a half years ago, and suggested that we were about to go through a period in which OA would come to mean "all things to all men".

Shortly thereafter, an anonymous poster on the American Scientist Open Access Forum wondered why Nature Immunology was using the term open access on its website without apparent justification. (A reference that was subsequently removed).

And as time passes so publisher attempts to appropriate OA have increased, both in frequency and egregiousness.

Last March, for instance, ACS (the American Chemical Society) announced a new policy in which it said it planned to “post, for public accessibility 12 months after publication, the peer-reviewed version of authors' manuscripts on the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central."

The announcement was a pre-emptive response to the impending US National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy “on enhancing public access to archived publications resulting from NIH-funded research"; a policy intended to encourage NIH-funded researchers to self-archive their papers in PubMed Central.

ACS presented its own policy statement as an altruistic initiative designed to relieve authors of the "administrative burden of compliance", and as a "method of further opening access to its content."

Redefining Open Access

In reality, however, in offering to archive authors' papers for them, ACS was seeking to limit the number of authors who might self-archive their papers earlier than 12 months (since the NIH had requested they do so "as soon as possible").

In short, while implying that it was embracing and supporting Open Access, ACS was deliberately acting against the spirit of the NIH policy, and implying that embargoed access was the same as Open Access — a tactic I discussed at the time.

The fact is, however, that ACS remains one of the most obdurate opponents of OA. Unlike 93% of scholarly journals, for instance, ACS journals still insist that their authors sign a Copyright Transfer Agreement (CTA) that requires them to give up the right to self-archive their papers. Specifically, it states that "Authors/employers may [only] post the title of the paper, abstract (no other text), tables, and figures of their own papers on their own Web sites, and include these items in their own scholarly, research papers."

Crucially, there is no mention in the CTA of PubMed Central or the NIH policy. As such, most researchers signing it will presumably assume that they are also agreeing not to archive their papers in PubMed Central.

Nor is ACS the only scholarly publisher intent on making embargoed access synonymous with Open Access. Shortly before the ACS statement, for instance, the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) announced that it would encourage its authors "to submit the author's version of the accepted, peer-reviewed manuscript to their relevant funding body's archive, for release six months after publication."

NPG added that "authors will also be encouraged to archive their version of the manuscript in their institution's repositories (as well as on their personal web sites), also six months after the original publication."

While OA advocates greeted the NPG announcement with enthusiasm some later saw NPG's weasel words for what they were. Since NPG had previously encouraged authors to self-archive immediately on publication, NPG was in reality introducing a six-month embargo where no embargo previously existed — a move Harnad immediately dubbed "Back-Sliding."

Delayed open access publisher

In short, as publishers are coming under increasing pressure to make concessions to OA they are seeking to redefine it, both by diluting the definition of what an OA journal is, and by introducing self-archiving embargoes.

To be fair, there are two ways of interpreting this: one is that publishers are simply trying to ensure a gradual and orderly transition from Toll Access to Open Access; another is that they have embarked on a campaign intended to emasculate OA.

Following the behaviour of the Royal Society last December, however, some have concluded that the latter explanation is more likely. Specifically, the Society made the meaningless claim that it was a “delayed open access publisher" — on the grounds that it makes its papers freely available 12 months after publication.

This claim was viewed in a particularly uncharitable light since the Society made it after receiving an Open Letter from 42 disgruntled fellows (a number that has subsequently grown to 64, including 6 Nobel prize-winners) strongly objecting to a position statement the Society had published the month before.

Widely perceived as an attack on OA, the Society's position statement was undoubtedly an attempt to derail the draft proposal published last June by Research Councils UK (RCUK). This envisaged mandating publicly-funded researchers in the UK to self-archive their published papers in institutional repositories.

Unsurprisingly, the Society's self-definition was greeted with considerable derision by open access advocates. “There is no such thing as 'delayed open access publishing', otherwise all publishers are 'delayed open access publishers', some merely having very long delay periods, corresponding to human mortality and the heat death of the universe," commented Harnad sarcastically. "The Royal Society, like all non-OA publishers, is an embargoed-access publisher."

On reflection, Harnad conceded that since the Royal Society allows authors to self-archive their papers in an institutional OA repository it too is a green publisher. However, since only 15% of authors do currently self-archive, the Society is clearly reluctant to make it mandatory.

Indeed, the Society's stratagem may not have been without some effect. At the time of writing, no progress has yet been made with the RCUK proposal, which has missed a number of deadlines for implementation.

Wiggle room

But perhaps we should not be too critical of publishers. Rightly or wrongly they believe that OA poses a significant threat to their income, and they are understandably keen to protect that income.

Indeed, one could justifiably argue that the OA movement has only itself to blame for the current situation, since it has signally failed to produce a canonical definition of OA.

Thus while there have been a number of statements and declarations about OA — including the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative, the 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, and the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing — these all describe OA in slightly different ways. In addition, there is the BioMed Central Open Access Charter and the Public Library of Science [PLoS] definition of OA, both of which are different again.

And OA advocates have never sought to amalgamate these various descriptions in order to produce a single universal statement of what OA is, and what it entails.

True, in 2003 Suber made an unofficial attempt, but this tends to highlight the differences, rather than the similarities. Moreover, he omitted to include the Berlin Declaration in his analysis.

OA advocates often stress that the various definitions of OA agree on the fundamentals, but it is clear that the absence of a canonical definition is a source of considerable confusion, and leads to frequent factional sniping amongst OA advocates.

Crucially, this state of affairs allows publishers to mix and match different aspects of the various definitions in order to overplay their OA credentials. In seeking to talk up Springer's Open Choice, for instance, Velterop referred not to the most widely-cited definition outlined in the BOAI, but to the Bethesda Statement — because, as Velterop pointed out, the Bethesda Statement "carries the following rider: 'Open access is a property of individual works, not necessarily journals or publishers.'"

In other words, the lack of a single definitive description of OA also gives publishers and OA opponents wiggle room to seek to redefine OA for their own purposes.

Regrettable oversight

There is perhaps no better example of the risks inherent in this vagueness than the way that it is allowing publishers to equate embargoed access with Open Access. After all, since the OA movement has not sufficiently stressed that OA implies immediate access, it is often difficult to challenge such claims.

The BOAI, for instance, states that the prerequisite for OA is the "free availability [of scholarly papers] on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself."

This description makes no mention of the need for "immediate" access. (Neither does the Berlin Declaration).

Since the BOAI description is the most often cited, the failure to stress immediacy, says Harnad, was a regrettable oversight.

Again, publishers have been happy to exploit this lack of clarity. In an article in Serials Review last year, for instance, Chief Executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers Sally Morris described OA simply as "free, unrestricted access (to primary research articles) for everyone."

Aware of the growing risks of this lack of clarity, last year Harnad called on the BOAI signatories "to make explicit what was already implicit" in the BOAI.

In other words, he said, they should amend the BOAI statement to stress that OA "must be now and must be permanent (not, for example, a feature that is provided for an instant, a century from now).”

Why does immediacy matter? Its importance will, of course, depend on the discipline. But in the case of the biomedical sciences (the arena in which much of the battle for OA is currently being fought out) access to the latest research as quickly as possible is widely held to be essential.

No official organisation

Harnad's call for clarification, however, fell on deaf ears. But that is hardly surprising, since the ambiguity surrounding OA is symptomatic of a more serious problem: the absence of any central OA body to oversee and direct the movement.

Who, after all, could have usefully responded to Harnad's request? Even had the signatories of the BOAI heeded it, they would not have been able to legislate for the OA movement as a whole.

For unlike those in the Open Source Movement (who in 1998 created the Open Source Initiative [OSI]), OA advocates have resisted the creation of an umbrella organisation, for fear that it would lead to factional infighting, and so slow the progress of OA.

But is this rational? After all, the Open Source Movement suffers from factionalism and infighting too. One would only have had to monitor, say, the OSI's license-discuss list during last year's debate on licence proliferation to see how divided the movement can be, and how heated discussions can become.

Indeed, there can be few movements that have suffered more from internecine strife than has the Open Source Movement. What better example can there be than the oft-cited e-mail threat Eric Raymond sent to Bruce Perens in 1999. While Perens clearly exaggerated Raymond's message (implying that he feared Raymond might shoot him), the incident demonstrates just how inflamed discussion about open source software can become.

Yet despite this factionalism, and despite the insults and abuse, OSI has achieved a huge amount in the six years since it was established. A quick glance at its history is enough to see how successful an advocacy organisation it has been.

It has also produced a canonical definition of open source software, and it plays a vital role in certifying open source software licences.

Taking ownership

The OA movement then could surely only benefit from emulating the Open Source Movement.

Wouldn’t it be good, for instance, if there were an OA body able to certify anyone wanting to promote themselves as an OA publisher?

Likewise, wouldn’t it be great if there were an official body able to scrutinise publishers' self-archiving policies, and award a seal of approval?

And wouldn't it be easier to attract funding if there were a central non-profit OA organisation?

For while both the Open Society Institute and JISC have proved generous and enlightened benefactors, the current situation is one in which external organisations are deciding where funding should be directed, and who should benefit. As such, they are making important strategic decisions that might be better made by the movement itself.

Moreover, with so many worthy causes in need of support, it is surely only a matter of time before these organisations decide to redirect their funds elsewhere — possibly before the movement has succeeded in its objectives.

When I interviewed the Open Society Institute's Melissa Hagemann last June, for instance, she pointed out that while the Open Society Institute had decided to extend its support for OA beyond the three years initially envisaged, there has never been any wish to "claim ownership" of the movement. "Our intention from the beginning was to provide seed funding, and to help to launch a broad-based movement." In other words, sooner or later, the Open Society Institute will move on.

The fact is that OA advocates have failed to claim ownership of their own movement; and they have failed to do so out of fear that they might unleash a wave of self-destructive infighting (as if infighting didn’t already take place). But unless they do so soon they risk the greater danger that opponents and foot-draggers will appropriate the movement, and emasculate it in the process.

Right now what the OA movement needs more than anything else is greater clarity, and a unified response to those who are trying to subvert it. But where is the Open Access Foundation that can provide this?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Interview with Michael Hart

Today I am publishing an interview with Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitise, archive, and distribute cultural works, primarily the full texts of public domain books. Founded in 1971, it is the oldest digital library in the world, and currently offers 17,000 freely downloadable e-texts.

This is the first of The Basement Interviews, the introduction of which I am publishing on my blog. The full article (including introduction) is available as a downloadable PDF file (see below for details), which I am publishing under a Creative Commons licence.

Sadly, on Tuesday 6th September 2011 Michael Hart was found dead at his home in Urbana, Ill. He was 64. The New York Times obituary is available here.

Preserving the Public Domain
An interview with Michael Hart, creator of Project Gutenberg

Michael Hart was born in Tacoma, Washington, USA, in 1947. His mother, who had earned three degrees before turning 18 and was a cryptanalyst during WWII, was business manager for "the chicest women's store" in the town; his father was an accountant.

When Hart was eleven his parents both decided to retrain as university professors, and the family moved to Urbana, Illinois, where Hart lives today. Even before entering high school Hart himself had regularly attended lectures at the University of Illinois. "I found nothing I couldn’t understand," he says, "so long as jargon wasn’t an issue."

When Hart went to University in his own right he completed a four-year "individual plan of study" program in two years, obtaining a degree in Human-Machine Interfaces.

However, it was when — on 4th July 1971— that Hart was given an account on the University of Illinois mainframe that he found his true métier. Casting around for a worthwhile cause with which to use the computer time he had been given, and conscious that the computer was connected to the nascent Internet, he decided to type the US Declaration of Independence into the computer — a faux parchment copy of which he had just been given at his local grocery store to mark Independence Day.

Immediately seeing the potential of the network as a revolutionary new medium for distributing information, Hart was soon typing in entire books, including the Bible, all of Shakespeare, and Alice in Wonderland. Thus was born Project Gutenberg — a project that rapidly turned into an ambitious scheme to make electronic copies of 10,000 out-of-copyright books freely available on the Internet. Hart's mission: "to break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy."

In retrospect Project Gutenberg was both prescient and revolutionary. In effect, Hart had become the first "information provider" twenty years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, and at a time when there were, says Hart, just 100 people on the network. Indeed, what was to become the Internet was then viewed as little more than a powerful mechanism for crunching data — not a publishing platform.

But for 17 years Hart had to plough a solitary furrow. Widely dismissed as "that crazy guy who wants to put Shakespeare in a computer" he had by 1997 input only 313 books. In 1998, however, he had a breakthrough. Linking up with the University of Illinois PC User Group, Hart set up a mailing list and started publicising his project. Soon he had recruited a team of volunteers to help, and by the end of that year 1,600 books had been keyed in. For his efforts Hart was honoured as one of the "Wired 25" in the November 1998 issue of Wired magazine.

Since then the number of volunteers has grown from tens, to hundreds, to thousands, and today Project Gutenberg offers over 17,000 e-texts, all of which can be freely downloaded in a wide variety of formats. In addition, there are now national Project Gutenbergs in Australia, Germany, Portugal, Canada and the Philippines, and plans are under way to create local projects in Africa, Asia, and other regions too.

New obstacles were to arise however: while copyright had always posed a challenge for Hart, the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act — extending US copyright by a further 20 years — removed one million potential eBooks from the public domain in one fell swoop. With copyright now averaging 95.5 years, and creators no longer needing to register their copyright, Hart began to fear that the public domain could disappear all together, undermining the raison d’être of what by then had become his life's mission.

When, therefore, opponents of the Sonny Bono Act decided to mount a legal challenge to the new law, Hart was the natural plaintiff. But Lawrence Lessig — the Stanford Law School professor who argued the case — refused to allow Hart to attach an appendix to the court documents expressing his personal views on the plundering of the public domain, so Hart walked away from the case, unprepared to be just a figurehead. His place was taken by Eric Eldred, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court as Eldred v. Ashcroft, only to fall at the last hurdle.

However, with an unshakeable faith in the importance of what he is doing, and calculating that 9 million books will nevertheless enter the public domain by 2020, Hart set a new mission for Project Gutenberg: to make 10 million eBooks available in 100 languages.

For Hart the stakes are high, since he views Project Gutenberg as more than just the first and largest distributor of public domain eBooks. In addition, he argues, it is a primitive example of a "replicator" (a reference to a Star Trek machine envisaged as being capable of copying any inanimate matter by rearranging subatomic particles), and so therefore also a "lever to the Neo-Industrial Revolution."

Hart believes that in the future a powerful new breed of replicators — which will include 3D printers and nano assembly tools — will be able to produce and copy physical objects as easily and cheaply as it is currently possible to make and copy electronic books and other types of digital information. This, he says will enable a new "unlimited distribution" model that will eradicate scarcity and usher in a neo-industrial revolution, benefiting mankind as radically as did the first industrial revolution.

The danger, he cautions, is that to protect vested interests, governments and large corporations will seek to artificially maintain today's limited distribution mode, making the current controversy over the ownership of digital information and the Internet a mere dress rehearsal for a more profound struggle. In short, if the battle over intellectual property and the public domain is lost, says Hart, it will set an ominous precedent for the future.

Many are quick to characterise Hart as an eccentric. While rejecting that term, Hart agrees to "not being like anyone else I've ever met". Certainly he has an unusual take on the world — a characteristic that when Hart graduated led an assistant dean at the University of Illinois to comment: "Like many young men who are brilliant, there is always the danger of [Hart] being misunderstood as simply eccentric." For that reason, he added, Hart should be "given the opportunity to pursue courses of action which might at first seem somewhat bizarre."

For its first 17 years Project Gutenberg was indeed viewed as a "somewhat bizarre" enterprise. Today, however, it is widely recognised as the first and most concerted attempt to preserve the public domain in the digital age.

Above all, however, Project Gutenberg is testimony to the determination of Hart, a man not easily deflected from his target. As his long-time friend Sue DeVries puts it: "Michael is absolutely brave, in the bone-deep sense, which makes him able to keep to a chosen path when others might find a task too daunting. He does not change his opinion or feelings with public opinion or outside pressure. He is also very funny, delights in all kinds of things, and has a great laugh."

As I discovered, Hart is also a challenging person to interview. Having a conversation with him is — as he himself puts it — like "herding cats". Nearly every question asked of him exploded into a series of related and more complex questions, and then bounced back to me. Since Hart's preferred mode of communication is e-mail, my inbox was soon throbbing with hundreds of messages; and when he eventually agreed to a telephone conversation he insisted that I turn off the tape recorder, leaving me desperately scribbling on a cascade of loose sheets of paper that constantly fell to the floor!

He also seems to be a man whose attention can quickly stray. After the hectic flurry of e-mails, and the phone conversation, I found it increasingly difficult to get Hart to respond to my requests for clarification of points he had made: his constantly active mind appeared to have wandered off — presumably to new schemes and ideas; and no doubt to more interesting questions from importunate journalists!

But eventually the interview was finished. What it reveals is a man whose whole life has clearly been dedicated to defending the public domain, but who is sometimes a little hard to fathom.


If you wish to read the interview in its entirety please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

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To read the interview in its entirety (as a PDF file) click here.