In the most basic sense, what defines both open software and open content is licensing. People have always been developing content (folk songs, pamphlets, jazz themes, rap beats, essays) that they hoped others would reuse and remix. But until recently (exactly five years ago, in fact) there was no easy way for the producers of that content to publish their works in a way that encourages (or even allows for) others to freely use and build upon what they’ve created.

That’s why people make such a big deal about Creative Commons licenses. For the first time in history they allow you to say, ‘ok, I created this [text, audio, video, etc.] but I allow anyone else to publish it as well. Depending on which license you choose, you can specify more about what people are able to do with the work you created. Are they allowed to make money from it? Do they have to give you credit? Are they allowed to remix what you’ve made and make something new from it? You can specify all of those choices, giving artists and authors more control than ever over their works.

Similarly, most open source software is released under a GPL license, which takes it a step further and says that no one is owner of the software – it belongs to the general public.

Choosing which license to use is often a religious debate at meetings like this one. On my personal blog I use a non-commercial license, meaning that anyone is welcome to republish my content, but no one is allowed to make any money from it. There are some exceptions – for example, there is an online travel website that uses a few of my photographs in their guides. I’m sure that they make some money from their site, but I’m ok not receiving any of it for just a few photographs among hundreds.

Choosing a non-commercial license makes me “not cool” among the open source purists because I’m not allowing my content to have its greatest possible use/implementation. Damn straight. If someone is going to make money from my content, it’s going to be me.

Well, not always. On Global Voices, everything we publish allows for commercial use. So it is completely legal for anyone to take all of the 2000 or so posts I’ve written on Global Voices, publish them in a book and make millions (I know, I know, ‘I wish’). All they have to do is properly attribute the writings to Global Voices. But the money is all theirs.

Some popular English-language open content websites include: Wikipedia, openDemocracy, Global Voices, iCommons, and Boing Boing.

So now that you have a better sense of just what is open content, why is it important?

I think that many of us are tired of the constant commodification of culture. When I make a podcast about Medellin, I’m doing so not to make money, but rather to be part of a conversation. I am more interested in my content having impact than making money. Furthermore, I know that if I charge money for anything I produce that I am restricting it to a specific portion of the global population – the same people who have always had access to information.

The fact that Global Voices is open content means that it can be re-used by many different groups. Textbook makers can choose relevant posts for descriptive cultural narratives, translation software companies can use our translations to build their translation memory corpora, and news sites and bloggers are free to copy and paste what they like so long as they credit the source. Open content is incredibly useful because it can be used in so many ways.

For me – and for many of my friends – open content is much more compelling than commercial content. I don’t just want to be a recipient of culture anymore, I want to be part of it; a constant creator-consumer. I’m almost always more impressed by the (sometimes rough) creativity of those making open content than the practiced and polished production that takes place within a few neighborhoods of Los Angeles and New York. Yes, I love my Harper’s and New Yorker magazines, but I also love my hundreds and hundreds of RSS feeds. I love that what I read and view and listen to is made by friends. That I learn from them and add to their creativity with my own.

Next post: why open translation tools are important to both open source software and open content.