Open, Freedom, and Equality

(Or, What Open Means to Me)

Open is one of those words that inspires. It inspires because it communicates to people exactly what they want to hear. The word is so powerful because it completely lacks a definition. It can be whatever you want it to be. This is how we find ourselves with ‘OPEN from American Express’, ‘Open Web’, ‘OpenID’, ‘Open Source’, ‘Oracle OpenWorld’, ‘Yahoo! Open Strategy’, OAuth (the ‘O’ stands for ‘Open’), open standards, and on and on and on…

But what does it mean? What do we mean when we stick ‘Open’ in front of something?

Open Scale

To talk about Open, we need to talk about the constant tension between freedom and equality. People growing up in most western societies are raised to believe that both freedom and equality are attainable goals which society should aspire to secure for all of its people. But that is fundamentally flawed.

For many rights, equality and freedom are absolute contradictions. In order for everyone to have an equal chance to live, society must limit our right to hurt each other. This might not sound like a real infringement of our freedom, but it is one of the most basic animal instincts we are born with. Our inability to simply take whatever we want is a huge compromise we make in freedom in exchange for equality in safety and stability.

This post is not meant to be a deep philosophical debate about freedom and equality, but I am bringing this up because we all pick a side between the two when we define what Open means to us. For example, when we talk about open standards, the common definition is a specification that has been:

  1. Created by a transparent process with free participation and equal influence,
  2. Widely published and available freely, and
  3. Can be implemented by anyone without any restrictions.

But of course, there are very few (if any) standards that fully qualify.

People never have equal influence because the very nature of standards are to reach compromises, and when doing so, getting the agreement of some is more important than the agreement of others. If the process is truly equal, anyone can veto and block it.

Standards are often published and made available for free but even when their copyright is licensed, they are still encumbered by other rights. And as for free to implement, well, with the state of our patent system these days, at best you can tell when a standard is known not to be free. There is never a way to know that it is 100% free, guaranteed.

So what do we do? How are the standards we consider Open balancing equality and freedom? Giving up our copyrights, we trade our freedom to enforce our rights with everyone else’s equal access to the text. When a company gives a patent license, they trade their freedom to enforce their intellectual property for others’ equal access to that patent.

The question is, how much freedom are we willing to lose in order to provide others with equality, and what do we get in return? It is easy to demand equality when you have nothing to lose yourself. The idea that we can keep our freedom and get equality is patently wrong.

While discussing the guiding principles of the Open Web Foundation license – the legal document used to provide legal protections to those implementing specifications – many members of the community posted clear demands that in order for companies to get a seat at the table, those companies must give up all rights to assert their relevant intellectual property, for anything from that point on.

It is perfectly reasonable to demand that a participant in the process will never sue anyone for implementing the specification. But the question here is, what if that patent is used in another specification, one in which that company has chosen not to be part of. The community members making this demand are asking the company to give up its freedom for their equality, but they are not offering a similar trade.

They want something for nothing. At least that is how many of them position their requirements. I am in no way trying to make a legal argument here, just to illustrate that Open means something very different to different people.

Is the web any less Open because once a standard is declared final, you cannot change it and still benefit from the same legal protections (extended to the new specification) without asking for those rights again? If we make such demands, are we more likely to change the way companies operate or force them into isolation, hence not benefiting from their intellectual properties at all, not even for the specifications they would have participated in?

I am still working to define what Open means to me, but I know it is heavily biased towards equality over freedom. It is how I make most of my political decisions in life. I am willing to give up more of my freedom to gain access to resources and influence the development of the web. As we continue to work towards building a better foundation to this brave new digital world of ours, defining Open is something that we will have to keep asking ourselves over and over again.

One thought on “Open, Freedom, and Equality

  1. For me, the most pivotal word used above is compromise.
    A conversation last night with a colleague brought the freedom/equality statement into discussion. It was stated that in socialism, if everyone is equal, no one has freedom. He was directing his comment to the current political administration’s movement toward what he believes to be a socialistic society.
    I am not certain that we can be totally free (with our basic instincts) and survive the consequence. The Declaration of Independence suggests that all men are created equal, but we know that not to be true on many levels. Our better angels suggest we work for equality in man. The machines in the movie Matrix states that man acts more like a virus than a mammal. This observation may be correct if we end ourselves before we can reach our full human potential. I hope that our potential be (universally ) creative and not (self)destructive. I believe an imperative is to live with freedom and equality in balance. Thank you for your article.

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