October 2004

Open Content and Open Standards in FLOSS

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The debate in FLOSS has often featured on the software aspects and the philosophy of “free” and open source software. “Free” means different things to different groups. In the context of making available the source code of software freely on the Internet and to allow free modifications in the source codes for both improving the existing package as well as to improve the features or modules on a product. The community of followers of such a philosophy have transformed the intellectual property debates and provided a key example of how communities, geographically distant, and not even knowing each other, have built a body of knowledge and solutions far more rapidly and creatively than the corporate model for software development.

There are yet two other aspects of this movement that this article features. The concepts are called open content and open standards. These are critical concepts that have to be understood for building a base-line knowledge on the FOSS ideology.

The “Open Development” approach
Bellanet International Secretariat (www. bellanet.org ) has been building the concept of Open Development. The Open Development approach is about supporting and creating an environment of sustainable information and knowledge sharing. Having a cultural environment that is supportive of open approaches leads to improved access to quality information and knowledge, and to more effective and coordinated development efforts.

The approaches and tools of Bellanet's Open Development programme, includes Open Standards, Open Source, and Open Content. It serves as an integrated package that not only provides opportunities for operating in an open manner, but also promotes the ideals of common ownership and collaborative development work for the collective benefit of all participants in the development community. This programme in a distinct way fulfills the mission objectives of the organisation of promoting effective collaboration in the international development community, especially through the use of ICTs.

Open content
Creative Commons is a unique licensing system and movement that promotes the generation and sharing of creative work in a flexible copyright policy. The movement has gained a lot of support in the music, art, talent and creative writing industry of people who believe that the knowledge in these areas is a gradual and traditional process that must be openly shared. Interesting analysis of the creative commons licensing system has evoked renowned publisher and anthropologist Dr. Marshall Sahlings of the University of Chicago to promote a concept of Internet Pamphleteering. This enables people to move away from “all rights reserved” concept of traditional copyright to “some rights reserved” under flexible copyright concept of Creative Commons.

The Open Content Network available at www.open-content.net, is a forum that promotes the strength of the Open Content Network will lie in a diversity of implementations that each meet different user needs. Thus, unlike many other projects, the focus is not on creating a single kitchen-sink implementation that tries to meet everyone's needs. Instead, a primary focus will be on creating detailed specifications of the simple, yet powerful, protocols upon which the OCN is built.

Content-Addressable web specifications

  • HTTP Extensions for a Content-Addressable Web (CAW) – This document describes a set of simple, yet powerful, extensions to HTTP that enable clients to perform secure, distributed downloads.
  • Tree Hash EXchange format (THEX) – This document defines a serialization and interchange format for Merkle Hash Trees. These hash trees allow very efficient, fine-grained integrity checking of content in a distributed network.
  • Content Mirror Advertisement Specification – This document defines a flexible lease-based protocol for announcing mirrors in a distributed content network.
  • Partial File Sharing Protocol – This document defines HTTP extensions for discovering which bytes in a file are available to be downloaded. This protocol enables “swarm downloads” to be implemented over HTTP.
  • WebMUX – This document defines a multiplexing protocol that allows multiple “virtual sockets” to be established over a single TCP connection. WebMUX augments the Content-Addressable Web by allowing connections to be established to hosts behind firewalls and NAT.

The International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (www.inasp.org.uk) based in UK aims to enabling worldwide access to information and knowledge. INASP is a cooperative network of partners. Its objectives are three fold: (i) to map, support and strengthen existing activities promoting access to and dissemination of scientific and scholarly information and knowledge; (ii) to identify, encourage and support new initiatives that will increase local publication and general access to quality scientific and scholarly literature; and, (iii) to promote in-country capacity building in information production, organisation, access and dissemination.

The Open Knowledge Network (OKN) is a human network, which collects, shares and disseminates local knowledge and is supported by flexible technical solutions. Resources in their website (http://www.openknowledge.net) describes it as a global network project of the One World International Network in UK. Poor people must be able to express and communicate locally relevant knowledge in local languages if they are to shape the decisions that affect their livelihoods. Local content development is closely tied to human development, and the ultimate aim of OKN is the empowerment of local communities.

Open standards
An Open Standard is more than just a specification. The principles behind the standard, and the practice of offering and operating the standard, are what make the standard Open. The Open Standards Repository (www.openstandards.org) is a location that contains standards relevant to the Open Source community. Standards will include licenses, standards, protocols, RFCs, etc.

The principles of running the Open Standards repository is to make them available for all to read and implement; to maximize end user choice. This creates a fair, competitive market for implementations of the standard, without locking the customer in to a particular vendor or group. Open Standards are free for all to implement, with no royalty or fee. Certification of compliance by the standards organisation may involve a fee. Open Standards and the organisations that administer them do not favor one implementer over another for any reason other than the technical standards compliance of a vendor's implementation. Certification organisations must provide a path for low and zero-cost implementations to be validated, but may also provide enhanced certification services. Extensions, subsets and predatory practices are also issues that are predefined principles of Open Standards, which may employ license terms that protect against subversion of the standard by embrace-and-extend tactics. The licenses attached to the standard may require the publication of reference information for extensions, and a license for all others to create, distribute, and sell software that is compatible with the extensions. An Open Standard may not otherwise prohibit extensions.

A standards organisation that wishes to support itself through certification branding should establish a premium track and a low-cost or zero-cost track. This would provide self-certification by the vendor and baseline branding.

The standards organisation may wish to apply an agreement similar to the Sun Industry Standards Source License to the standard documentation and its accompanying reference implementation. The Sun agreement requires publication of a reference implementation (not the actual commercial implementation) for any extensions to the standard, making it possible for a standards organisation to preserve interoperability without stifling innovation.

Another interesting site for learning more about the Open Standards resources for Web, Internet and System Interoperability is (http://open-standards.gbdirect.co.uk). It describes some of the key open standards and the organisations that make them. These include web standards (HTML, XHTML, CSS, XML, XLST)

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