Say Libre

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Say "Libre" for Knowledge and Learning Resources

Kim Tucker

[Last major update: Software Freedom Day 2007-09-15].


In response to discussions among members of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement about whether to describe learning resources as "free", "libre" or "open", this essay clarifies the position of the "libre" camp and outlines the rationale for referring to knowledge and learning resources as "libre" or "free" rather than "open".

We start by building on a decade of debate and experience in the world of free/libre and open source software. Substantial sections of Why "Open Source" misses the point of Free Software and other essays of opinion by Richard Stallman have been copied and adapted with permission.

We generalise from free software to free knowledge, and indicate the importance of the semantics in building community and shaping the future - towards a broad vision for a libre knowledge society.


When we call a knowledge resource “libre”, or "free", we mean that it respects the users' essential freedoms: the freedom to use the work for any purpose, to study its mechanisms to be able to modify and adapt it to their own needs, to make and distribute copies in whole or in part, and to enhance or extend the work and share the results freely. Free knowledge requires use of free software to access and manipulate the resources which should be stored in free file formats. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of “free speech,” not “free beer.”

These freedoms are vitally important. They are essential, not just for the individual users' sake, but because they promote social solidarity—that is, sharing and cooperation. They become even more important as more and more of our culture and life activities are digitized. In a world of digital sounds, images, words, other digital resources and electronic social interactions, free software and libre knowledge resources become increasingly equated with freedom in general.

Tens of millions of people around the world now use free software and libre knowledge resources; schools in regions of India, Spain and southern Africa now teach learners to use the free GNU/Linux operating system, and share free knowledge resources such as Wikipedia for Schools and GCompris, while implicitly free knowledge policies are becoming common in prominent OER, Open Access and other educational initiatives (e.g. PLoS, WikiEducator, WikiVersity, Connexions, Le Mill, Kewl, etc.).

In the case of software, most users seldom think about the ethical reasons for which these systems and communities have been built, because today the systems and communities are more often referred to as “open", rather than "free" or "libre", and are attributed to a different philosophy in which these freedoms are hardly mentioned.

Within the open knowledge and education communities, attention tends to be more on the authors' copyright and ownership of resources than the learners' freedom to use them and to engage with the community. This detracts from the intent of most of these initiatives, and leaves them open to threats which could severely undermine the entire movement.

The primary plea of this article is for the "open" initiatives to assess their degree of alignment with the vision for libre knowledge expressed here, and to consider adjusting their terminology to match.


Education and life-long learning are about sharing and generating knowledge. The libre knowledge vision has been expressed as follows:

Knowledge for all, freedom to learn, towards collective wisdom
enabling people to empower themselves with knowledge
and to share it for community benefit

When knowledge is shared electronically, the freedom to use, modify (localise), enhance, mix and share, is essential for effective knowledge transfer. Localisation is almost always required.

If you feel some resonance with this vision, and an affinity with the associated culture of cooperation and sharing, then please read on, as it is under threat. A collaborative effort is required to ensure such a free Internet culture.

First, we touch on some of the history of free software and of open source software indicating where proponents of the latter lost touch with the ethical foundations of free software. The community split, and our vision of a free hacker culture on the Internet has become vulnerable to a variety of threats. Misconceptions around "free" and "open" source software are propagating into the free/open education space, which is equally vulnerable to these threats.

Free Software and Open Source Software

In the early days of computing, hackers enjoyed a culture of cooperation. Sharing of source code was common practice. However, when it became clear that computers would be used widely, and that there might be a market for software, certain parties decided to keep their source code secret and sell the executable software without it. Proprietary software was born. This alternative world in the making could lead to all software being under the control of a few powerful companies, denying users the freedoms at the core of the hacker culture.

The free software movement has campaigned for users' freedom since 1983, and within a decade had developed most of the components needed for a complete free operating system, and a license to protect the freedom of users - the (copyleft) GNU General Public License. These activities secured the free software world and the community has grown in strength and numbers.

Their successes caught the attention of prominent software companies recognising the potential for incorporating free software components. This was made possible with the GNU Lesser General Public License which is only recommended when its use does more for the cause of freedom than would use of the GNU General Public License.

The two worlds co-existed. The free software community upheld the ideal of a free hacker culture of sharing, learning and collaboration towards developing free software and offering professional services, while the proprietary world generally sought to gain more control over users in order to maximise profit from software sales.

In the face of increasing competition, some companies started to develop hybrid business models, leveraging some of the advantages of collaborative development observed in the free software communities.

The Split

In 1998, a part of the free software community splintered off and began campaigning in the name of 'open source'. The term [open source] was originally proposed to avoid a possible misunderstanding of the term “free software,” ... (libre/gratis). Some of the proponents of “open source” considered it a “marketing campaign for free software,” which would appeal to business executives by citing practical benefits, while avoiding the [gratis interpretation and sidelining the ethics and social value of a free hacker culture]. Other proponents flatly rejected the free software movement's ethical and social values. Whichever their views, when campaigning for “open source” they did not cite or advocate those values. The term “open source” quickly became associated with the practice of citing only practical values, such as making powerful, reliable software. Most of the supporters of “open source” have come to it since then, and that practice is what they take it to mean.
Nearly all open source software is free software; the two terms describe almost the same category of software. But they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, because only free software respects the users' freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical sense only. It says that non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the free software movement, however, non-free software is a social problem, and moving to free software is the solution.

With prominent software organisations promoting "open source" as part of their competitive edge, general awareness of the phenomenon grew dramatically, and its influence has spread into many fields beyond the software development industry. In particular, the idea is being expressed in the OER movement, Open Science initiatives, and by organisations such as the Open Knowledge Foundation.

Libre Knowledge and Open Knowledge

If one follows discussions in these "open" knowledge communities, it is clear that many of the proponents hold a position of freedom, in tune with the vision and values of free knowledge communities. Broad alignment with the libre knowledge vision (above) is also evident in the discussions. However, the term "open" has become almost pervasive, since "open source", on account of its profile, served as inspiration for many of these initiatives. At the same time, within these communities, are those who seek to restrict and control (or "protect") knowledge and learning resources. The degrees of freedom varies.

Free software. Open source. Free knowledge. Open Knowledge. Libre Learning Resources. Open Educational Resources. Does it matter which names we use?

With regard to free software:

Yes, because different words convey different ideas. While a free program by any other name would give you the same freedom today, establishing freedom in a lasting way depends above all on teaching people to value freedom. If you want to help do this, it is essential to speak about “free software.”

In terms of libre knowledge, free culture and libre learning resources:

Yes, in addition to the rationale for speaking about "free software", effective learning and knowledge generation requires the aforementioned freedoms, which are not inherent in the word "open". Moreover, the libre knowledge movement is motivated by a vision (above) with freedom at the core. To clarify our purpose and realise this vision, we need to express freedom in our words and actions.

"Open" communities are not the enemy. The enemy is those who market proprietary (non-free) knowledge in a manner that restricts and disrespects the freedom of users. The free software movement stands for freedom, and its members do not accept being misidentified as open source supporters.

In a similar vein, libre knowledge communities stand for freedom and use the words "free" and "libre" to express that value, and to keep the focus on the vision: knowledge for all, freedom to learn, towards collective wisdom.


Free software

The term “free software” has a problem of misinterpretation: an unintended meaning, “software one can get for zero price,” fits the term just as well as the intended meaning, “software which gives the user certain freedoms.” We address this problem by publishing the definition of free software, and by saying “Think of free speech, not free beer.” This is not a perfect solution; it cannot completely eliminate the problem. An unambiguous, correct term would be better, if it didn't have other problems. Unfortunately, all the alternatives in English have problems of their own. The Free Software Foundation has looked at many alternatives that people have suggested, but none is so clearly “right” that switching to it would be a good idea. Every proposed replacement for “free software” has some kind of semantic problem—and this includes “open source software.”

Open Source Software

The official definition of “open source software” (which is published by the Open Source Initiative and too long to cite here) was derived indirectly from our criteria for free software. It is not the same; it is a little looser in some respects, so open source supporters have accepted a few licenses that we consider unacceptably restrictive of the users. Nonetheless, it is fairly close to our definition in practice.
However, the obvious meaning for the expression “open source software” is “You can look at the source code,” and most people seem to think that's what it means. That is a much weaker criterion than free software, and much weaker than the official definition of open source. It includes many programs that are neither free nor open source, since "specific licensing agreements vary as to what one is allowed to do with that code" (part of an open source software definition published by the state of Kansas). The open source people try to deal with this by pointing to their official definition, but that corrective approach is less effective for them than it is for us. The term “free software” has two natural meanings, one of which is the intended meaning, so a person who has grasped the idea of “free speech, not free beer” will not get it wrong again. But “open source” has only one natural meaning, which is different from the meaning its supporters intend. So there is no succinct way to explain and justify the official definition of “open source.” That makes for worse confusion.

Open knowledge and OER

Similarly, there are commonalities among definitions of free/libre knowledge, open knowledge and open educational resources. The Open Knowledge definition is based on the Open Source definition. The OER definition covers a wide range of resources, including educational software and structured learning resources. The OER movement has been described as follows

The open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies, for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for noncommercial purposes.
OER has been likened to FLOSS Just as FOSS allows users to modify software as needed, OER allow users to adapt content to suit their own needs.
OER is a very broad concept. A wide variety of initiatives and online materials can be classified as educational resources – from courses and course components, to museum collections, and open access journals and reference works. And over time, the term has come to cover not only content, but also learning and content management software and content development tools, and standards and licensing tools for publishing digital resources, which allow users to adapt resources in accordance with their cultural, curricular and pedagogical requirements.
Sally Johnstone (2005)

A vision of freedom is implicit in the definitions, goals and discussions. However, the adjective "open" suggests the possibility of restrictions, and the non-commercial restriction in the OER definition (above) is explicit (though this restriction is increasingly being dropped by prominent producers of OER).


During the early years of the 21st century, the word "libre" acquired meaning in English, largely on account of the adoption of "FLOSS" as an accepted acronym for free/libre and open source software and common use of the term "software libre". "Libre" does not suffer the same ambiguity in the word "free" and many people prefer to say "libre knowledge". Nevertheless, the terms " free knowledge", "free culture" and "free content" are also widely used, and definitions have been posted on the Internet based on the free software definition.

Libre Knowledge

Libre Knowledge can be acquired, interpreted and applied freely, it can be re-formulated according to one's needs, and shared with others for community benefit. In today's world, where knowledge may be captured and shared electronically, this freedom is not automatically preserved, and we elaborate this definition for explicit knowledge:
(explicit) Libre Knowledge is knowledge released in such a way that users are free to read, listen to, watch, or otherwise experience it; to learn from or with it; to copy, adapt and use it for any purpose; and to share derived works similarly (as free knowledge) for the benefit of the community. Representations of free knowledge must be conveniently accessible for modification and sharing. For example, using Free software and Free file formats.

"Explicit knowledge" is knowledge captured on some medium, usually in a form representable on a computer (e.g. text, sound, video, animation, executable program, etc.).

The libre knowledge definition is a direct generalisation of the free software definition, specifying the types of freedom for the users:

Free Software definition

  • Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
  • Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs. (Access to the source code is a precondition for this.)
  • Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour.
  • Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. (Access to the source code is a precondition for this.) A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms.

Libre Knowledge definition

  • Freedom 0: The freedom to use the work for any purpose.
  • Freedom 1: the freedom to study its mechanisms, to be able to modify and adapt it to their own needs.
  • Freedom 2: the freedom to make and distribute copies, in whole or in part so you can help others.
  • Freedom 3: the freedom to enhance and/or extend the work and share the results similarly. Freedoms 1 and 3 require free file formats and free software as defined by the Free Software Foundation. A knowledge or learning resource is free if users have all of these freedoms.

"Open" implies one may look at the resources, like opening and reading a book. The possibility of restrictions is accepted, and one does not assume the freedom to adapt and engage with the resources and the community in a process of sharing and co-development. The value of such freedom is not expressed in the word "open". For this reason, we say "libre knowledge" and "libre learning resources". "Libre" disambiguates free. The term "free knowledge" is also acceptable as it highlights the extension of the philosophy and ethics of free software.

With respect to digital knowledge and learning resources, freedom to use, modify (localise), enhance, mix, copy and share is required for effective learning and collaborative knowledge generation (e.g. via social construction). This is particularly important for developing communities who need to localise and adapt the wealth of knowledge resources on the Internet for them to be useful. Freedom to help each other in this process and in generating new resources is essential.

While the debate around the terminology has not (yet) been as fierce in the learning and knowledge arenas as it has been in the software industry, the sooner we clarify the implications based on what we can learn from the software world, the more likely we are to pre-empt possible negative consequences and channel our energies in the same direction.

We now turn our attention to some of the threats to freedom if we forget the ethical rationale for using libre resources (including free software), and suggest strategy and tactics towards freedom to learn and share knowledge.

Reclaiming and Protecting Freedom

Understand the threat posed by digital restriction

In recent years we have seen attempts to control and restrict users of devices via technical means, sometimes reinforced with legal measures.
Examples violating freedom 1 of the free software definition include:

  • TiVo which includes a mechanism to prevent modified versions of the software from running,
  • "Trusted Computing" which includes mechanisms to detect (via the network) which programs you are running and whether they have been modified,
  • Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB) which includes functionality to prevent data files from being accessed by modified versions of a particular program, and Advanced Access Content System which uses cryptography to control the use of digital media and what files may be processed.
Under the pressure of the movie and record companies, software for individuals to use is increasingly designed specifically to restrict them. This malicious feature is known as DRM, or Digital Restrictions Management (see, and it is the antithesis in spirit of the freedom that free software aims to provide. And not just in spirit: since the goal of DRM is to trample your freedom, DRM developers try to make it hard, impossible, or even illegal for you to change the software that implements the DRM.
Digital rights management (DRM) refers to access control technologies used by publishers and other copyright holders to limit usage of digital media or devices. DRM can also refer to restrictions associated with specific instances of digital works or devices.
The hypocrisy of calling these powers "rights" is starting to make WIPO embarassed.

Digital Restrictions Management (a more accurate expansion of the acronym) is one of the most serious threats to libre knowledge and a free Internet culture of sharing and cooperation.

Yet some open source supporters have proposed “open source DRM” software. Their idea is that by publishing the source code of programs designed to restrict your access to encrypted media, and allowing others to change it, they will produce more powerful and reliable software for restricting users like you. Then it will be delivered to you in devices that do not allow you to change it. This software might be “open source,” and use the open source development model; but it won't be free software, since it won't respect the freedom of the users that actually run it. If the open source development model succeeds in making this software more powerful and reliable for restricting you, that will make it even worse.

The GPL version 3, seeks to manage the DRM threat. This is one of the reasons that libre knowledge should necessarily be accessible via free software, and libre knowledge resources should be represented in free file formats (see Jimmy Wales, 2004). There should be no technical controls of our freedom to access, adapt, mix and share.

Live the Libre Vision

Use free software and insist on use of free file formats

Take a firm stand on freedom and use free software to access, manipulate and share knowledge resources. If you have not already done so, make the decision, and migrate to free software. Become a living ambassador for libre knowledge, participant and contributor.

Extend the impact and demonstrate the benefits of collaborative peer production (Benkler, 2002, 2006) beyond free software and Wikipedia. For example, use wikis and other forms of social software in your organisation for policy development, knowledge sharing and decision making. In the education field, consider joining and participating in initiatives such as WikiEducator, Le Mill, Connexions, etc. and grow the communities of interest.

The temptation to resort to proprietary software to access, modify and share knowledge resources is ever present. Resist this temptation. It often leads to use and development of resources represented in proprietary or patent-encumbered formats.

Similarly, the lure of the apparent convenience of glossy, off-the-shelf proprietary knowledge and learning resources, can be hard to resist. These often include components such as media files in patent-encumbered formats requiring non-free software for access and modification. The licensing typically disallows sharing and prevents the comprehensive localisation required for effective use in education. The range of free/libre alternatives is growing rapidly, as are the associated user/contributor communities.

The consequence is that many people who either cannot afford the required proprietary software, or who choose to use software libre, will not be able to access the resources, let alone localise and share them.

There have been tragic examples of people being unable to access information required to save lives on account of proprietary and encrypted file formats (see for example When Open Standards Really Matter - The Katrina Factor).

If a learning resource helps a community to decrease infant death rates through better primary health care and strategies for managing HIV/AIDS, the license should not disallow users to help their neighbours in the next village by sending them a copy, or a localised version.

These are extreme examples. But where does one draw the line? (We don't).

Knowledge resources are of greatest value if the users are free to localise, adapt, extend, mix and share them for community benefit. Use of free software and free file formats guarantee this freedom. DRM technologies, non-free software and proprietary file formats restrict or remove it.

Reject the term "intellectual property"

“If someone is talking to you about 'intellectual property', either, they don't know what they are talking about, or, they are trying to deceive you”.
RMS, Idlelo 2004, Cape Town.
Publishers and lawyers like to describe copyright as "intellectual property" - a term that also includes patents, trademarks, and other more obscure areas of law. These laws have so little in common, and differ so much, that it is ill-advised to generalize about them. It is best to talk specifically about "copyright," or about "patents," or about "trademarks."
“These laws originated separately, evolved differently, cover different activities, have different rules, and raise different public policy issues. Copyright law was designed to promote authorship and art, and covers the details of a work of authorship or art. Patent law was intended to encourage publication of ideas, at the price of finite monopolies over these ideas - a price that may be worth paying in some fields and not in others. Trademark law was not intended to promote any business activity, but simply to enable buyers to know what they are buying; ...

The implicit analogy with physical objects conflicts with the legal philosophies of the various areas of the law it professes to cover.

The term "intellectual property" carries a hidden assumption - that the way to think about all these disparate issues is based on an analogy with physical objects, and our ideas of physical property. When it comes to copying, this analogy disregards the crucial difference between material objects and information: information can be copied and shared almost effortlessly, while material objects can't be.To avoid the bias and confusion of this term, it is best to make a firm decision not to speak or even think in terms of "intellectual property".

For the purposes of this document, we focus on copyright.


Since 1710, when copyright restricted the right to copy a book to a particular machine (usually a bookseller's printing press) with no restrictions on use, there has been a progressive reduction in formalities required to register copyright, for an ever increasing duration, and with incumbent restrictions on use of the work by readers, performers, etc..

In most countries, the default copyright (if nothing to the contrary is indicated in the work) is all rights reserved for the author, apparently indefinitely. Many publishers require authors to sign over that all-encompassing copyright,

Copyright © 2007 <author name>
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed ... [in any way whatsoever] ... without the prior written permission of the publisher ....

though this can often be negotiated.

In the modern connected world, this regime generally contradicts the original purpose of copyright: to promote progress in science and the useful arts - a public good.

... in the age of the digital copy the role of copyright has been completely reversed. While it began as a legal measure to allow authors to restrict publishers for the sake of the general public, copyright has become a publishers’ weapon to maintain their monopoly by imposing restrictions on a general public that now has the means to produce their own copies.
Anna Nimus, 2006 referring to RMS

The purpose is not to enrich publishers or authors, or to grant them undue influence on development and distribution of culture. The effect is a severe restriction of the growth of the knowledge commons, and of the flow of creativity that supplies the publicly available pool of cultural resources (Lessig, 2004).

Reforming copyright law is one route to correcting this situation. There are efforts to do so, but the task has proved extremely challenging on account of strong lobbying on the part of publishers and media companies with a vested interest in the traditional property-based approach.

In the meantime, there are some work-arounds: copyleft (Free Software Foundation) and some of the Creative Commons licenses. Both are referred to in the next section.

Release knowledge and learning resources under a libre license

In the connected world, immediate sharing of knowledge is often the most effective way to promote and streamline progress. Share an idea, a knowledge/learning resource, or some code, and the world benefits. You benefit. Readers (etc.) may provide comment and enhancements to improve the resource, or variations which render it more useful in different contexts. Processes of collaborative peer production (Benkler, 2002, 2006) of code, documents, learning materials, music, etc. are hindered by copyright law as currently formulated.

Copyleft, an approach pioneered by the free software community, neutralises this threat, and provides an incentive to contribute.


Copyleft is a general method for making a program free software and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free software as well. Copyleft uses copyright law, but flips it over to serve the opposite of its usual purpose: instead of a means of privatizing software, it becomes a means of keeping software free.The central idea of copyleft is that we give everyone permission to run the program, copy the program, modify the program, and distribute modified versions - but not permission to add restrictions of their own.Thus, the crucial freedoms that define “free software” are guaranteed to everyone who has a copy; they become inalienable rights.
RMS in Joshua Gay 2001

If the knowledge resource under consideration happens to be software, release it under the GNU General Public License version 3 or above.

The copyleft concept has been extended to documents, books and other digital artifacts. The GNU Free Documentation License, originally designed for software manuals, has been taken up by Wikipedia and other Wiki Media Foundation projects. The GNU General Public License (for software) is being used for remixable manuals in at least one instance (see for example, FLOSSManuals).


"ShareAlike", popularised by the Creative Commons, is similar in concept to copyleft, though it is not necessarily associated with free licenses (e.g. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike violates freedom 0).

Most producers and users of knowledge and learning resources will happily use both free and non-free components for convenience, with little thought about ethics beyond "fair use" and taking care to avoid copyright violation. Mixing and enhancing resources released under different licenses is tricky, even when the intent of the licenses is similar (such as the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike). Effecting compatibility among such licenses remains a challenge.

For composite learning resources, managing permissions can be very challenging - debilitating for both educators and learners engaged in social construction of knowledge.

The most common approach to alleviating this problem is to release all resources under the same remixable license. Examples include the Public Library of Science and Connexions (Attribution), WikiEducator and Le Mill (Attribution-ShareAlike), Wikipedia and other Wikimedia Foundation projects (the GNU Free Documentation License).

Allow Commercial Use

One restriction is particularly popular in the OER communities: "non-commercial use only". This denies communities the freedom and opportunity to offer professional services to localise, enhance and disseminate the knowledge to people who need it. This is of particular importance for developing communities in respect of the type of knowledge required to enhance quality of life and the need for localisation (e.g. know-how and knowledge pertaining to health, entrepreneurship, technical and vocational skills, the environment, etc.).

In some cases the fear is that others will profit at the expense of the authors. This fear is usually unfounded (see Lessig 2004). Most educators would not be making any profit. It is their job to prepare learning resources for their students. By sharing resources and making it possible for others to disseminate them, the impact is greater, and benefits of peer review and community contributions are likely. Everyone benefits significantly from many small contributions to the bottomless cooking pot of the knowledge commons (Ghosh, 1998, 2005).

Creative Commons and Freedom

The Creative Commons licensing scheme provides a convenient workaround for the pervasive and all-encompassing copyright regime imposed in most countries at the time of writing. Authors may specify which usage restrictions to lift.

Among the Creative Commons licenses are a few which may be classified as "libre licenses" in line with the libre knowledge definition above:

These state that users are free to use, adapt, mix and share unchanged or modified versions of the work. The first two ensure that the same applies to derived works. Attribution requires acknowledgement of previous contributors. In the case of Attribution, users may release their adaptations under a different license, potentially producing a non-free (attributed) version. The original remains free/libre - and may be adapted and shared accordingly.

The other Creative Commons version 3.0 licenses,

are non-free with respect to the libre knowledge definition.

Although these licenses may each have their own purpose and usefulness in some situations, only ShareAlike 1.0 and Attribution-ShareAlike really serve the cause of libre knowledge and culture by unreservedly growing the commons.

Resources licensed as ShareAlike 1.0 are most easily adapted, mixed and shared without the overhead of maintaining trees of attributions. With this license, Attribution is a matter of courtesy and respect for previous contributors - beyond the duration of copyright. Acknowledging each others' contributions is integral to a culture of cooperation and sharing. In terms of Lessig's (2000, 2004, 2006) model, which suggests social norms, architecture, the law and the market as primary moderators of behaviour, the act of attribution would be driven primarily by norms rather than the law (as it is with the Creative Commons 3.0 licenses).

The Creative Commons has done much to enable and catalyse the growth of the knowledge and cultural commons through its "pro-choice" approach on the side of authors. The approach is appropriate in the current copyright climate. However, it is the position of this paper to push the boundaries towards pro-freedom for the users. First steps may include using the Creative Commons ShareAlike 1.0 license, and consider either upgrading this license to 3.0 (in line with the other Creative Commons licenses), or to develop a new license for the copy, modify, mix and share culture.

GNU Free Documentation Licenses

As mentioned above, there are some large, high profile libre knowledge initiatives using the GNU Free Documentation License. Version 2 of this license is under discussion, along with the GNU Simpler Free Documentation License. The license was originally designed primarily for printed computer software manuals, enabling communities of users to contribute. The new versions under discussion seek to be more general, covering material stored on various media, including the Internet.

The GNU Simpler Free Documentation license dispenses with the complexity of handling cover texts and invariant sections. By being simpler, the license is closer to what is needed for learning resources in the free "copy, modify, mix and share" Internet culture.

A New Libre License?

Mixing resources across the various initiatives is cumbersome, if not legally disallowed, unless the same ShareAlike license is used by all parties. The desire to share and mix across these initiatives grows exponentially as the resource bases grow. Re-licensing large repositories is not regarded as feasible by the respective communities, and the debates around which repositories to re-license are (seemingly) intractable. Multi-licensing does not reduce the complexity.

The context for licensing of digital resources is one of © <author or publisher> all rights reserved. All of the above licenses were developed in that context. At least for now, we are stuck with the requirement for authors to assert their copyright and then explicitly relax some of the restrictions.

All the Creative Commons version 3 licenses include (for example) Attribution, and the GNU licenses accommodate Attribution. This is useful when asserting copyright and upholding an author's right to grant freedoms to the users.

On the other hand, if we drop for a moment the assumption of © <author or publisher> all rights reserved as the default (the permission culture), we can speculate on a new, user-centric license for a free culture in the connected world.

First, we could assume that in such a world, Attribution may be managed by the communities - a cultural norm. Technology may be used to assist with attribution, for example by automation in cut and paste operations, social tagging and meta-data editing, etc..

By default original works could assume a Libre License, which respects the users' freedom. This could be similar to public domain but be designed to grow the commons.

If our aim is to achieve the libre knowledge vision expressed above, the most appropriate existing licenses in this respect for the current context seem to be ShareAlike 1.0 and the draft GNU Simpler Free Documentation License.

Given the retired status of ShareAlike, and the apparently unshakable complexity of even the GNU Simpler Free Documentation License, perhaps it is time for a new license designed to enable the copy, modify, mix and share culture we envisage.

Its name could be the "Libre Puro License", and its use would require no more than inclusion of the libre puro emblem emblem or a link to the License page. It may still be written for the current context, but designed to outlive copyright duration, and indeed, copyright itself (at the point of no copyright, public domain would be the default, but we would continue using the emblem to remind ourselves and future generations of the value of freedom). Repositories of digital resources with this license would rapidly outgrow any existing repositories on account of ease of mixing the resources.
Consider this a challenge to develop and formalise such a new license and/or to start libre knowledge repositories using this new license. Discuss the Libre Puro License.

Advocacy and Research

Along with the definition of libre knowledge and the manifesto above, is the libre emblemLibre Emblem which may be included with any libre knowledge, learning or cultural resource. The emblem asserts that the associated knowledge is "libre" - common knowledge to be used, adapted, mixed and shared in the spirit of the manifesto, and in accordance with the definition.

Using the emblem is just one tool for one level of advocacy: raising awareness.

To strengthen advocacy, walk the talk: use free software and become a participant in communities of co-developers/users of libre resources (see "Live the Libre Vision" above).

Finally, to be really effective, we need to understand what we are actually doing, know who and what we are up against, be inclusive and cooperate, discover how to improve processes of libre knowledge acquisition and sharing in a global context, and share best practices.

Research strengthens advocacy. The readings included in this document serve as general background. The concept of libre knowledge pervades all intellectual endeavours. The challenge is to understand processes of technology adoption and peer production towards meeting local needs, the implications across diverse contexts, and the likely global impact in terms of the vision.

Vision and Values

Common visions and shared values help to channel energy towards specific goals. Only recently has it become possible to do this on a global scale, and never before has the need been so great. Individual freedom is a powerful indicator of development (Sen, 1999). Here we discuss the vision of the OER movement and of libre communities, and suggest that the former aligns more strongly with the latter, at least in terms of terminology.

Vision Values
Knowledge for all, freedom to learn, towards collective wisdom
enabling people to empower themselves with knowledge
and to share it for community benefit

Libre Communities value:

  • the members and their diverse perspectives,
  • the libre resources produced and the associated freedoms,
  • the ability of communities to collaborate on managing the quality of shared resources, and
  • the opportunity this freedom offers for networked communities to make a difference collectively, towards a sustainable world.

The Open Source Software Community Chose Different Priorities

As indicated previously, the open source community lost site of the goal of the free software movement, and decided to emphasise practical benefits in order to sell their software and services more effectively in the business world. Their continuing contribution in terms of free software code and resulting growth in the community is significant and appreciated, but this is insufficient in terms of defending our freedom to learn and share knowledge against the threats indicated.

Sooner or later these users will be invited to switch back to proprietary software for some practical advantage. Countless companies seek to offer such temptation, some even offering copies gratis. Why would users decline? Only if they have learned to value the freedom free software gives them, to value freedom as such rather than the technical and practical convenience of specific free software. To spread this idea, we have to talk about freedom. A certain amount of the “keep quiet” approach to business can be useful for the community, but it is dangerous if it becomes so common that the love of freedom comes to seem like an eccentricity. That dangerous situation is exactly what we have. Most people involved with free software say little about freedom—usually because they seek to be “more acceptable to business.” Software distributors especially show this pattern. Nearly all GNU/Linux operating system distributions add proprietary packages to the basic free system, and they invite users to consider this an advantage, rather than a step backwards from freedom. Proprietary add-on software and partially non-free GNU/Linux distributions find fertile ground because most of our community does not insist on freedom with its software. This is no coincidence. Most GNU/Linux users were introduced to the system by “open source” discussion which doesn't say that freedom is a goal. The practices that don't uphold freedom and the words that don't talk about freedom go hand in hand, each promoting the other. To overcome this tendency, we need more, not less, talk about freedom.

For the OER and open knowledge communities, the equivalent is using and producing resources in formats whose specification is not public, and/or require non-free software for modification. Doing so detracts from realising the vision of libre knowledge.

Open Educational Resources Communities and Vision

OER Vision

The OER movement promotes "the sharing of knowledge worldwide ... for international peace".
(UNESCO Second Global Forum on International Quality Assurance, Accreditation and the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education, “Widening Access to Quality Higher Education”, Paris, 28-29 June 2004).

A prerequisite for "the sharing of knowledge worldwide" is the freedom to do so. To reiterate, the freedom to translate and recontextualise knowledge and learning resources is essential if they are to be of any use.

The achievements of the OER Communities are highly commendable (See Atkins et al., 2007). Their contribution to the volume of free knowledge is significant. Here we question only the label "Open" which detracts from the real intention of most of these initiatives.

One of the pioneering OER initiatives is MIT's Open CourseWare. The strategic initiative emerged as a response to the Internet and the emerging opportunities for education. By making their courseware available, the institution stood to gain benefits of peer review involving a wide diversity of academics, and attract students drawn to the relevant research areas and approaches. Although the costs of preparing courseware for public release were significant, the benefits exceeded all expectations and inspired the OER movement.

A more recent definition of OER:

OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others1. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge. 1. But not necessarily for commercial use—it depends on which Creative Commons license is used.
Atkins et al, 2007

The key phrase is "... license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others". As mentioned previously, the adjective "open" does not express the essence of this freedom to engage. It is also possible that the term OER, defined in terms of "intellectual property", was more acceptable at the time to those who would allocate funding to the initiatives. OCW and most prominent OER initiatives are institutionally focussed. Would the movement have been as successful to date if OER and OCW had been promoted as "Free Educational Resources" or "Libre CourseWare" etc.? This is similar to the "open source" versus "free software" situation described above.

Times change, awareness of global issues is growing, and it is more important than ever to inspire action towards holistic and well thought out visions of a sustainable future to inform and guide our efforts. For OER and other "open" initiatives, it is time to transform.

Recognise the need for universal participation in the global knowledge society, understand the perspective of development as freedom (Sen, 1999), and respect the freedom of local communities to localise, adapt, mix and share knowledge resources. Quality and utility is context-specific.

The "Open" communities are invited to re-assess their stated goals - for the most part, these are already orientated towards libre knowledge - and consider relabelling resources and titles "Libre" or "Free". At the very least, use these terms when freedom to use, copy, modify, mix and share is the intended meaning.

Libre Knowledge Communities and Vision

The most prominent contemporary libre knowledge initiative, Wikipedia, is inspired by a vision

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That's our commitment.

and others in its wake guided by a blog posting by Jimmy Wales:

Free Knowledge requires Free Software and Free File Formats.

The purpose and direction is clearly towards libre knowledge, and there is implicit alignment with the values expressed in the libre communities manifesto (above).

It has been suggested that the values statement be reduced to "Libre Communities value the associated freedoms". However, in view of the current context, and for the purposes of this document, we accept the manifesto as it is and ponder for a moment the last point: "the opportunity this freedom offers for networked communities to make a difference collectively, towards a sustainable world".

Sustainable development implies simultaneous consideration of all three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental concerns. Freedom to share knowledge towards "international peace" (see OER vision above) is a socio-political concern, integral to a sustainable world.

The sustainability of life as we know it on the planet is under threat on account of our actions. The threat may be averted if we all become aware of our own impact and act accordingly. The required knowledge for global sustainable development should necessarily be shared freely - as libre knowledge.

We can be wise only together
Margaret Wheatley (2005)


As with the free and open source software communities, there is wide cooperation on the development of learning and knowledge resources, and some of the most prominent producers of OER have released their work under undeniably "libre" licenses. Moreover, discussions in these communities are clearly orientated towards freedom to learn and share, and the social construction of knowledge is well understood.

Although the free/libre vs open debate has not been as heated in the education and knowledge arenas as it has been in the software industry, and the open knowledge and education communities have not made a strategic decision to downplay ethics and values as did the open source community, the threat to libre knowledge and learning is noteworthy, if we are to pre-empt any negative consequences.

To counter the threats of control and enclosure of the knowledge commons, the vision of free/libre knowledge, the necessity to use free software, and the pedagogical rationale (freedom to learn through social construction), need to be articulated clearly and at every opportunity.

Using the term "Libre knowledge" (or "free knowledge") draws attention and energy towards a common goal and shared vision. Openness is a prerequisite for libre knowledge, but insufficient to secure a libre knowledge society. We need to walk the "free/libre" talk: use free software, insist on free file formats, and exercise our freedom to participate, contribute and engage with libre communities.

Describe knowledge and learning resources as "libre" or "free" when that is what is meant. Doing so will provide clarity of purpose of both the resource and the movement, emphasising the underlying and implicit values and vision of libre knowledge. Towards "international peace" and a sustainable world.

As the advocates of open source, open knowledge and open educational resources draw new users into our communities of free software and libre knowledge, we need to work even more to bring a vision of freedom to those new users' attention.

We can say, “It's free software and it gives you freedom!” and "It's libre knowledge - it's liberating! You are free to learn with the resources and to adapt and share your knowledge!" - more and louder than ever. Every time we say “free" or "libre" rather than “open”, we inspire energy and action towards a vision:

Knowledge for all, freedom to learn, towards collective wisdom
for a sustainable world

Further Reading and Notes

References and Further Reading

Aigrain, P. 2005. Positive intellectual rights and information exchanges, in Ghosh (2005).

Atkins, D. E., J. S. Brown and A. L. Hammond, 2007. A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities, Report to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Benkler, Y. 2002. Coase's Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm, The Yale Law Journal, 112 (3).

Benkler, Y. 2006. The Wealth of Networks, Yale University Press, London.

Gay, J. (editor), 2002. Free Software Free Society: selected essays of Richard M. Stallman. GNU Press. 2002.

George, S. 2004. Another World Is Possible If ..., Verso, New York.

Ghosh, R. A. 1998. Cooking pot markets: an economic model for the trade in free goods and services on the Internet, First Monday, 3 (3), 2 March 1998.

Ghosh, R. A. 2005. Cooking-pot markets and Balanced Value Flows. In Ghosh, R. (editor) CODE, MIT Press, 2005.

Hess, C. and E. Ostrom, 2007. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: from theory to practice, MIT Press.

Himanen, P. 2001. The Hacker Ethic, Random House, New York.

Johnstone, S. 2005. Open Educational Resources and Open Content, for UNESCO IIEP discussion forum 24 October - 2 December 2005.

Lakhani, K. R. and R. G. Wolf, 2005. Why Hackers Do What They Do: Understanding Motivation and Effort in Free/Open Source Software Projects. In Feller, J., B. Fitzgerald, S. Hissam, and K. R. Lakhani (editors), 2005. Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software, MIT Press.

Lessig, L. 2000. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Basic Books, New York.

Lessig, L. 2001. The Future of Ideas, Random House, New York.

Lessig, L. 2004. Free Culture. Penguin Press, New York.

Lessig, L. 2005. The People Own Ideas! NetPlus, 12, August/September, Intelligence Publishing, Cape Town.

Lessig, L. 2006. Read-Write Culture. Presentation at Wikimania2006.

Lessig, L. 2006. Code 2.0, Basic Books, New York.

Nov, O. 2007. What motivates Wikipedians, or how to increase user-generated content contribution. Communications of the ACM, (forthcoming). There is a growing body of research on what motivates free knowledge contributors. In this study, the top three motivators identified were fun, ideology and values.

Sen, A. 1999. Development as Freedom, Anchor Books, New York.

Sunstein, C. R. 2006. Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge, Oxford University Press, USA.

Wales, J, 2004. Free Knowledge requires Free Software and Free File Formats. Blog posting.

Wheatley, M. 2005. Preface for The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.

UNESCO, 2002. Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries, Final report, UNESCO, Paris, 1-3, July 2002.

Notes and Links

Joe Barr wrote an article called Live and let license that gives his perspective on this issue.

Lakhani and Wolf's paper on the motivation of free software developers says that a considerable fraction are motivated by the view that software should be free. This was despite the fact that they surveyed the developers on SourceForge, a site that does not support the view that this is an ethical issue.

Institutional focus

The OER movement has a strong institutional focus. One corollary of shifting towards "libre learning" is a greater focus on communities of interest and drawing on the energy of participants rather than the more heavy-weight top-down institutional approach.


References to sustainability highlight the types of knowledge that most need to be shared - an holistic view covering social, economic and environmental concerns. Social and economic concerns tend to dominate over environmental concerns, though this is changing (see and Climate Crisis).



This essay was prompted by the debate on the UNESCO IIEP OER mailing list during 2006 and 2007, and by an inquiry from David Wiley, a prominent member of the OER community, about writings on this topic. The target audience includes people involved in the growing Open Educational Resources (OER) movement and organisations such as the Open Knowledge Foundation.

About the Author and Primary Contributors

Kim Tucker is a researcher on ICT in Education (Libre Knowledge and Learning) at the Meraka Institute in South Africa.

Richard Stallman is the president of the Free Software Foundation and founder of the GNU Project, launched in 1984 to develop the free software operating system GNU.

Libre Emblem

Original version 20070915 posted at