An article this week (“Free College Texbooks: Fad or Fabulous?“) got me excited that truly free content might be making its way to a more mainstream use in education. The company, Flat World Knowledge, promotes their content as being, “Created by experts … enhanced by users … free to all,” and they appear to be making some headway in education circles. Unfortunately and very sadly, their content is not free and open.
Looking through their catalog, every single book I looked at is under the Creative Commons BY NC SA. The NC means the work cannot be redistributed as part of a commercial venture. This could be interpreted to mean that, for example, I cannot offer a class for pay and use their books. I cannot modify the book and make it available from my website for download if my site has advertisement banners on it that are gathering fees for me. (None of this is tested in a court that I know of, I am not a lawyer, and I am merely conveying the common understanding here. For an example, Fedora, the well known and 100% free/libre and open source software Linux distribution, does not permit the CC with the NC clause to be used for anything in the distro.)
Contrast this with Wikibooks, which releases their content under the GNU FDL. I’m not the biggest fan of the FDL, I prefer the easier to use Open Publication License (OPL), but I’ll take the FDL over non-free any day. Ironically, Flat World Knowledge could build their entire business by taking Wikibooks content, adding expert knowledge and editing, and rebranding/distributing the books through their catalog. The one thing they could not do is to make the subsequent works non-free. Similarly, Wikibooks cannot use any of the Flat World Knowledge material in any of their truly free and open textbooks.
This is another example of people either completely misunderstanding free and open, or deliberately and disingenuously using the term ‘open source’ to gain marketing advantage from a lie. From the article, Flat World Knowledge co-founder Eric Frank refers to their “… free and open textbooks …” As Chief Marketing Officer, he is clearly setting up the connection and trying to gain buzz from the open source movement. Mr. Frank is a “textbook publishing industry (veteran)”, along with his other co-founder Jeff Shelstad. This means they are coming from traditional publishing with what they are touting as a new business model. I agree it is new in comparison to traditional textbook publishing, but it is not free and open by any measure.
There is a part of the Flat World Knowledge website they call “The Hub”, which is supposed to be for users to create modifications or new works to distribute. I have not been able to find that part of the site with my normal user account. It is possible that one needs to be an instructor, which is asked about during registration for the site. They specified that the instructor status would be questioned and confirmed, and I didn’t attempt any dishonesty, signing up as a regular user. (I reckon they won’t take my status as a homeschooling Dad to be the same as a college level instructor.) Perhaps “The Hub” exists only for instructors. According to the site’s legal page, content posted in “The Hub” is under a license chosen by the author during posting; I cannot confirm what license options are available. Thus, it’s possible that one could use Flat World Knowledge as a way to write and distribute truly free and open textbooks. (This only seems possible because the legal terms recognize the license chosen as being predominent on the work; the site legal notice is non-free as it restricts the reader from accessng “free and open content” if one does not agree to the site terms, which can be changed at any time at the discretion of Flat World Knowledge.)
Any college instructors out there willing to test this for me? I’d like to see a Wikibook textbook modified and redistributed under the FDL from the Flat World Knowledge website, just to see if it is possible.