Transparency Talk

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Transparency Chat: Creative Commons Helps to Scale Social Sector Knowledge Building
March 3, 2015

(Timothy Vollmer is the public policy manager at Creative Commons, which recently received a grant from the Fund for Shared Insight (FSI). FSI is a multi-year collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. This is the first in a series of interviews Transparency Talk is conducting with grantees of the FSI openness portfolio. Janet Camarena, director of Foundation Center’s San Francisco office and project lead of the Glasspockets initiative, asked Timothy about the work this grant will fund.)

Tvol headshotJanet Camarena: Congratulations on your recent grant from the Fund for Shared Insight!  Your grant falls within the part of the portfolio dedicated to supporting "efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness." What do you think the relationship is between increased openness and greater foundation effectiveness, and what have you learned about this from your prior work? 

Timothy Vollmer: We’re excited to work with foundations to adopt open licensing policies for their grant-funded content, and even homegrown works.  I think that increased openness can promote foundation effectiveness in different ways. First, by adopting open licensing policies on the outputs of the grants they are giving out, foundations set up the conditions to maximize the impact of their giving. By adopting open licensing policies for the digital outputs of their grantees—this could include reports, original research, educational courses, data, and other sorts of content—foundations are lowering the barriers to re-use of their grant-funded content. This is not a trivial change. Typically when grantees receive funds from a foundation to create something, the grantee is not required to share those materials. Instead, they  remain under “all rights reserved” copyright, and any third party who wants to take advantage of them for use in their own work needs to ask permission from the grantee in order to do so. Under open licensing, permission is granted in advance, allowing re-use for any reason as long as a minimal set of license conditions are met—for example attribution to the author. When open licensing policies are in place, grant-funded content can be more widely distributed and used in new ways. By requiring that foundation grantees contribute grant-funded materials to the commons, it can open doors that would have normally been closed. Grantees can access and use works produced by other grantees, and incorporate already openly licensed works into their own creations to make them better. Open licensing indicates, “I’m open for collaboration.”

By adopting a policy whereby the foundation works more in the open—and provides reports, grant databases, and other materials under open licenses—the philanthropic community can become better coordinated because they’re able to understand what’s being funded and where investment needs to be made.

Second, foundations themselves can begin to share more both within and between themselves. By adopting a policy whereby the foundation works more in the open—and provides reports, grant databases, and other materials under open licenses—the philanthropic community can become better coordinated because they’re able to understand what’s being funded and where investment needs to be made.

JC: Your specific funded project is to create resources and tools to help foundations adopt open licensing policies to enable increased sharing of grantee-produced materials. Tell us more about the details about what this work will produce and what you hope its impact will be, and whether there are opportunities for our Transparency Talk audience to participate?

TV: Our efforts will be two-fold: First, we will develop a foundation-focused website for open licensing and policy information, likely to be dedicated to the open licensing needs of foundation staff and grantees. It’s important to have a set of easy to understand resources for foundations that are looking to adopt open licensing policies. The website will host various types of resources, with a specific focus for foundation staff and foundation grantees. Such things might include licensing how-to guides, best practices for marking/attribution, explanations of the benefits of open licensing, case studies of existing foundation open policies, and a database of intellectual property policy texts from existing foundation practice.

Second, we will conduct outreach to new foundations about open policy and provide open licensing adoption and support. We think that a hands-on approach is desired in order to help foundations effectively implement an open licensing policy and support grantee compliance with the foundation’s openness goals. We plan to offer support services to all relevant foundation staff to ensure a successful adoption of open policies within the foundation. Such things could include legal support with foundation general counsel or legal staff on policy text drafting/adoption on all appropriate grantee documents, technical assistance for foundation web developers or grantees in order to license and mark works correctly, communications and promotional outreach to ensure accurate presentation of open policy details, and strategic discussion with foundation program officers and leadership team regarding how to work with grantees on understanding and complying with the open licensing policies. 

By adopting open licensing policies on the outputs of the grants they are giving out, foundations set up the conditions to maximize the impact of their giving.

JC: Your work centers on creative licensing and sharing; Creative Commons must see a great deal of compelling content all the time. With the implementation of the FSI grant, what sorts of contributions to the social sector do you anticipate from grantees? Are there any specific projects you’ve seen in the past that, because they previously could not be shared with the sector at large, would bring about more innovation and change?

TV: With open licensing policies, there’s massive potential to scale the creative reuse of content. We shouldn’t overlook how inefficient the current system is. This is true even more so in the public sector, where billions of dollars of taxpayer funded materials are not realizing their full potential because those grant recipients are not required to share their creations with the public that paid for them. What if we were able to flip the default from “closed” to “open”? One project we’ve been working on is helping grantees of the Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (yes, it’s a mouthful). The program funds community colleges to create course content for worker retraining. The innovation in this $2 billion federal grant is that the outputs of grantees must be shared online and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license for reuse by anyone, even for commercial purposes. The Department says it want “to ensure that the Federal investment of these funds has as broad an impact as possible and to encourage innovation in the development of new learning materials.” It’s still too early to see how all this content is being used and reused because it’s currently in development, but imagine the possibilities with a huge repository of openly licensed publicly funded educational resources.

Cc logoAnother thing that open licensing enables is reuse of materials in novel, unexpected ways contemplated by the original author. Take for example the PubMed Central CC BY article repository, an open access repository of scientific articles. A small group of Wikipedians developed the Open Access Media Importer, which scrapes PubMed Central CC BY-licensed articles and uploads the audio and video materials (almost 19,000 files thus far) to Wikimedia Commons so that those resources can be reused within Wikipedia articles. The reason this content can be used on Wikipedia is because it is licensed under a liberal license such as CC BY.

JC: Foundations and their grantees are sometimes reluctant to embrace open licensing because they support or manage projects that develop revenue streams for their organizations, and perceive open licensing to mean free.  Can you explain briefly what you mean by open licensing and whether it only encompasses free content?

TV: It’s true that some foundations support projects and ventures that are trying to make money, but I wouldn’t assume that the majority of them operate in this way. When we talk with foundations and other institutions contemplating adopting an open licensing policy, we urge them to match their policy with the overarching goals and missions of the foundation. For many types of foundations funding content like scientific research, educational resources, datasets, and the like—it makes a lot of sense to try to adopt the most liberal policy possible so that the materials have the best chance to be broadly reused and the impact of the foundation funding will be maximized. And foundations are in an optimal position to do this! We’ve already seen the most progressive policy for the funding of scientific research coming out of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which will require CC BY for all articles created with foundation funds.

Of course, for some types of foundation funding, open licensing doesn’t make sense—for example for general operating support or for the funding of salaries. And it should also be noted that foundation that have already passed policies setting CC BY as the default for the outputs of grantees also have written in a safety valve for releasing under a different license. For example, both the Hewlett and Ford Foundation policies say they will entertain exceptions/opt-outs if the grantee can make the case that CC BY doesn’t make sense or can’t be used for a particular publication or educational resource. This seems reasonable, especially as open licensing can be a new or confusing concept to grantees and foundation staff, at least initially.

For many types of foundations funding content like scientific research, educational resources, datasets, and the like—it makes a lot of sense to try to adopt the most liberal policy possible so that the materials have the best chance to be broadly reused and the impact of the foundation funding will be maximized. And foundations are in an optimal position to do this!

JC: Some of the risks mentioned in the Fund for Shared Insight's Theory of Change include the fact that institutional philanthropy is resistant to change.  How do you plan to get past that to achieve what you need to as a part of this project, and what do you think needs to happen for the field to be more change-oriented?

TV: First, open licensing is a somewhat new topic for most of the philanthropic world. CC licenses are only 12 years old, and only recently have they been incorporated into the publishing workflows of foundation grants and foundation-created materials. And of course, most program officers at foundations have decent-sized portfolios of projects, and a lot to do! I think most program officers, legal staff, and even foundation leadership would be completely on board with open licensing policies if it could help them achieve their goals and increase the impact of the philanthropic grant making. Of course, anytime you ask them to add on even one more thing to their workload, it can be a big deal. So partly, asking foundations to change how they work is a matter of internal capacity to do so.

But it also has to do with education, and it’s incumbent upon Creative Commons and the “open” community to demonstrate the benefits of open licensing and make its adoption and  implementation as easy as possible. That’s why we want to use the support of this Fund for Shared Insight grantt to develop easy to understand open licensing guides, marking best practices, and useful policy language, and also to provide legal and technical assistance directly to foundations.

The ball is already rolling with foundation open licensing. Just in the last year we’ve seen announcements of new or expanded open policy adoptions at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. Let’s keep it up!

--Timothy Vollmer

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
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    Foundation Center

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