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Getting Practical About Open Licensing
January 11, 2018

Kristy Tsadick is Deputy General Counsel and Heath Wickline is a Communications Officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where they created an Open Licensing Toolkit for the foundation’s staff and its grantees in 2015. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

Kristy_Tsadick photo
Kristy Tsadick
Heath_Wickline photo
Heath Wickline

Some of the biggest barriers to open licensing—an alternative to traditional copyright that encourages sharing of intellectual property with few or no restrictions—are practical ones. What rights are authors really giving others when they openly license their work? How do authors decide on the right Creative Commons license for their work? And having decided to openly license what they’ve created, how do authors actually let others know about their decision?

The Hewlett Foundation, where we both work, has a long history of supporting openness and transparency, and when Larry Kramer joined the foundation as president in 2012, he decided to make a renewal of that commitment a key part of his tenure. In 2015, that renewed commitment resulted in a decision to extend our support for open licensing to require it on works created using grant funds, underlining our belief that if grants are made to support the public good then the knowledge they generate should also be considered a public good.

To successfully implement this idea, we knew we would have to offer some concrete guidance to our program staff and grantees on both what we were asking of them and how to do it. We also knew we wanted to create a policy that would offer our grantees flexibility to comply with it in ways that made sense for their organizations. Both ideas are embodied in the Open Licensing Toolkit for Staff that we developed.

The kit is structured to help the foundation’s program staff decide to which grants the new rule applies, introduce open licensing to grantees, and help clarify what an open license on written works will mean for them. It uses FAQs, a “decision tree,” template emails and other documents to walk through the process. There is even a guide to marking works with a Creative Commons license to make clear what information is needed along with the copyright notice. And while the kit was designed with Hewlett Foundation staff in mind, we also wanted it to be useful for grantees and others interested in expanding their understanding and use of open licenses—so, of course, the toolkit itself carries a broad Creative Commons license.

Hewlett_toolkitIn thinking about which of our grants would be in scope for open licensing, we realized early on that general operating support is incompatible with the policy because those funds are given “with no strings attached.” Beyond even this broad exemption, we wanted to allow plenty of space for grantees to select licenses or request an exemption where they felt open licenses could do harm to them financially. It’s been gratifying to see how grantees have recognized the spirit of the new policy, and how infrequently they’ve requested exemptions—so much so that we stopped tracking those requests about a year after instituting the new policy. In one area where we did often see requests for exemptions—in grants to performing arts organizations, where the “work” is often a performance and selling tickets to it or recordings of it central to a grantee’s business model—we recently decided to change our standard grant agreements to recognize the need for this exemption.

Our goal in adopting the new policy was to show others what open licensing could mean for them—the way it can help spread knowledge and increase the impact of philanthropic resources. In that, we’ve been extremely successful, as other organizations have built on our toolkit, and our policy, to encourage open licensing in their own work. The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), for example, based its implementation guide for its own transparency policy on our toolkit, and the U.S. Department of State included a link to it in its Federal Open Licensing Playbook to encourage open licensing across all federal agencies. And because we included a Creative Commons license on the kit to be #OpenForGood, other organizations—including yours—are free to use and build on our work, too.

Hardly anyone would argue against getting more impact for the same dollars or having their ideas adopted and shared by more people. But real-world implementation details get in the way. Our experience with our Open Licensing Toolkit shows that a practical, flexible approach to open licensing helped extend our impact in ways we never could have imagined.

--Kristy Tsadick and Heath Wickline

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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.

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