When public dollars fund a project, shouldn’t the public then have access it? It seems like a no-brainer, yet this is oftentimes not the case as data, educational tools, media and more get squirreled away in the caverns of bureaucracy or, worse yet, sold back to a public that has already paid for the resource.

The Open Policy Network (OPN) was created to promote the open access of publicly-funded works. A project of Creative Commons, the OPN is envisioned as a “coalition of organizations and individuals working to support the creation, adoption, and implementation of policies that require that publicly funded resources are openly licensed resources.”

Along with the launch of the Network came announcement of the OPN’s first project, the Institute for Open Leadership (IOL), a week-long summit where accepted fellows build the movement toward openness in government licensing, policies, and practices.

Shareable spoke with Timothy Vollmer, Creative Commons staffer and co-organizer of the OPN, about the importance of releasing publicly-funded works back to the public, the evolution of Creative Commons licensing, how OPN will work to change policy, and how people can get involved.

Shareable: What was the inspiration for the Open Policy Network?

Timothy Vollmer: The idea for the Network came out of a brainstorming discussion at our Creative Commons Global Summit in Warsaw in 2011. There, we asked our affiliates—CC works with volunteers in over 70 countries—what sorts of things they need to help carry the CC message further. One thing they mentioned is the need to provide information, resources, and policy advice to government policymakers who want to include Creative Commons licensing in legislation, regulation, and policies.

This has become a much larger interest area for CC over the past several years. Creative Commons was initially used heavily by the creative and cultural sector–such as artists, musicians, photographers, and filmmakers. This is still true today, but we’ve also seen increased interest from the public sector, including national, state, provincial, and local governments, as well as cultural heritage institutions, intergovernmental organizations, and other entities. These public sector bodies fund the creation and distribution of a wide variety of digital content: educational and training resources, scientific research, health and crime data, and so on.

These groups have asked for help from us in implementing CC licenses, so we think that providing information, advice, and policy expertise is a natural and potentially very high-impact work area.

It seems logical that publicly-funded resources would be made available to the public, but I know this is not always the case. What stands in the way of these resource being made available and how does the OPN plan to address this?

To most it does feel logical—ethical even—that the public should have access to the materials funded by its tax dollars. That’s why our mantra with regard to the Open Policy Network is “publicly funded resources should be openly licensed resources.”

Right now this is not the case. In fact, oftentimes the public has to pay for materials several times over before they are granted access to it. Take the example of scholarly publishing. Many university researchers receive grants from the federal government to conduct their work. The public pays for this. The researcher does their work and then publishes in a commercial journal. That journal then sells access back to universities through subscription fees to those publications. I think most people would see that this is not an efficient—or just—use of the public’s investments.

I think what’s standing in the way of systemic policy change right now is “business as usual”—incumbent interests want things to stay the same. They want their business models to endure forever, even with massive disruptions of digital information and the web, which have essentially pushed publishing and distribution costs to zero.

What’s the ideal way to make public resources available?

We think that the best way to ensure that the public is granted the rights they’re due is to require that digital resources created with public funds be licensed under open, public copyright licenses, like Creative Commons licenses. CC licenses communicate in advance the rights we all should have to publicly funded resources.

Within the Open Policy Network, we’ve developed a set of principles by which we’ll work. We think that the adoption of open policies can maximize the return on public investments and promote a global commons of resources for innovative reuse. We believe that open policies should require, as a default, licenses compliant with the Open Definition, with a preference for open licenses that at most require attribution to the author (such as CC BY) for publicly funded content and no rights reserved (such as CC0) for publicly funded data.

There are already implementations of the policy that publicly funded materials should be openly licensed materials. One specific example is a grant program at the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s a big program, which will fund up to $2 billion of education and training materials. The difference between this grant program and those that have come before it is that grantees must agree to license and publish the digital content they create under a Creative Commons Attribution license. This way, the public, and anyone around the world, are free to re-use the materials for any purpose, as long as they give credit to the author of the materials.

The CC BY policy will help to maximize the impact of the government funded materials by clearly communicating rights. It expressly permits customization and localization of content. And it proactively enables innovative and entrepreneurial uses of grant-funded materials by anyone.

The resources that are being made available include data sets, academic research, media, digital textbooks and more. What are some examples of how these resources are being used by the public?

Regarding the Department of Labor grant program I mentioned earlier, we’ve already heard that grantees in the later rounds of funding are reusing and repurposing openly licensed content that was developed in the initial rounds. This is one benefit to open licensing and open distribution models—more people simply know about what content is already available out there. And the open license let’s them know how they can use it.

There are also interesting things being done across disciplines. PubMed Central is a repository of open access articles, many of which are published under the CC BY license. The articles are comprised of text, images, figures, and datasets, all licensed under the CC license. A few years ago, some Wikipedians thought that some of this great open access content could be great to have on Wikipedia. They developed the Open Access Media Importer, which “crawls scholarly publication databases for supplementary audio and video materials and uploads them to Wikimedia Commons if they are available under licenses compatible with re-use.” To date there are 16,541 files that have been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons. So, we see that openly licenses journal articles are being repurposed to feed open educational resources repositories.

Some cities and government leaders are rising to the challenge of releasing resources to the public, but this is not an easy undertaking. How can the OPN work with officials to make this transition easier? On what geographic scale do you hope to work?

The Open Policy Network is just getting off the ground now, but we’re contemplating areas of initial focus, as well as what sorts of materials and outreach will be most impactful. Regarding particular areas, it seems that policy change affecting open access to educational materials and scientific research are the most interesting, and viable. For example, there’s a huge interest from both policymakers and advocates in making school textbooks more affordable and useful for teachers and students. Today’s textbooks are prohibitively expensive, out-of-date, and static. Through the creation and adoption of openly licensed, standards-aligned, quality digital textbooks, we can begin to see needed cost-savings and better learning outcomes.

The Open Policy Network hasn’t been created inside a policy vacuum. There have already been reforms happening over the last several years, and much work has already been done through existing organizations and coalitions in educating decision makers about the benefits of open licensing. The pace might be slow, and the communication between advocates about what’s working and what’s not could be better. One thing the Open Policy Network can do is to pull together the best data and stories about the benefits to open licensing for publicly funded materials, and share existing policy language.

We want the Network to be truly a global effort. There’s already broad representation from North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific. Anyone can become a member of the network. Interest in promoting policies whereby the publicly funded education, research, and data are made available under open licenses seems to be nearly universally applicable. The tactics might differ from country-to-country and sector-to-sector, but the underlying principle is solid.

What's OPN’s role in this worldwide shift to a more open society?

The Open Policy Network will be just one player in the move toward a more open society. We think that the power of digital information, when combined with open licensing and embedded in public policies, can play a powerful role in increasing the efficiency of government and public sector investments in education, research, and data. This is not a small task. Open policy advocates must work productively and collaboratively alongside related activities, such as copyright reform, in support of the public interest and the movement to increase the transparency of government information.

The first OPN project is the Institute for Open Leadership, created to “train new leaders in education, science, and public policy fields on the values and implementation of openness in licensing, policies, and practices.” Why is this initiative important and what will this training entail?

We need the next generation of leaders to help operationalize the vision of the Network. Policy changes require in-depth knowledge about how particular systems and processes within institutions work. And those persons working from within are best positioned to instigate change.

It’s one thing for me to offer advice to a university provost about how to adopt an open access policy on her campus. It’d be much better for a scholarly communications librarian within that university, who knows the needs of faculty, students, and staff, to work with these groups to educate and implement a policy. The training will depend on the interests of the accepted fellows.

The Network already has a wide range of experts in various fields, from Open Educational Resources to Open Access to public sector information. Depending on the focus areas of the fellows, we will bring together the related experts for a week-long, face-to-face summit. But we don’t want the experts lecturing the fellows. We’re thinking about operating the in-person institute as a sort of “flipped classroom” whereby accepted fellows complete a set of research and exercises in preparation of the summit. That way, we can have a more productive and interactive meeting between instructors and fellows when we come together in January.

This sort of setup also fits the best with the central purpose of the Institute itself: for each fellow to develop an idea for an open policy project that is relevant to their field of work, hone the project in collaboration with the other participants during the in-person meeting, and return to their institution to implement the policy after the summit.

Who should apply for the inaugural IOL Fellowship program?

We are looking for a broad array of individuals who are interested, but not already experts in, open topics. We want persons who are willing to develop and work toward adopting an innovative open policy at their place of work or study. We foresee applicants coming from the government, university, GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) sector, publishing, and other areas. The application process is open until June 30th. We’re also looking for people to apply from outside of the United States.

What other projects would you like to see emerge from the OPN?

Right now we are focused on building the Network, addressing governance, and thinking about the prioritization of projects and needed resources. I would like to see the Network become a trusted and central mechanism comprised of content-area and policy experts from around the world that can fully address opportunities as they arise. Whatever emerges from the Network in terms of other projects will be up to all of us as members.

Creative Commons is the driving force behind the OPN. What will Creative Commons’ involvement in the Network be and how does the OPN align with the CC ethos and licensing?

CC is acting as the hub institution for the first year of the Network. This means that we host the website and organize the conference calls. But the day-to-day operations will be covered by members of the network, all who contribute on a voluntary basis. We’re working on setting up a steering committee, which will help set the direction of the Network over the longer term. This is not that CC wishes to abdicate responsibility of the Open Policy Network. We are interested because we fundamentally believe that increases in policies that support the idea that publicly funded resources should be openly licensed will feed the public commons and promote our vision of realizing the full potential of the Internet and drive a new area of development, growth, and productivity.


Photo: Trycatch (CC BY 2.0). Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter


Cat Johnson


Cat Johnson | |

Cat Johnson is a content strategist and teacher helping community builders create strong brands. A longtime writer, marketing pro and coworking leader, Cat is the founder of Coworking Convos and