News

Open Democracy

Mia Garlick, October 1st, 2005

openDemocracy is an online magazine that provides a forum in which global issues relating to politics and culture are debated, many of which do not receive sufficient or sufficiently careful attention by the mainstream media. Its purpose is to “publish clarifying debates which help people make up their own minds.”

Since 2001, openDemocracy.net has published around 2,600 articles written by writers from around the world. Readers include students, journalists, pensioners, policymakers and politicians. A brief review of openDemocracy’s author pages shows that recent authors have included Kofi Annan, Timothy Garton Ash, Janis Ian, Iris Marion Young, Salman Rushdie, George Soros, Richard Stallman and Gillian Slovo. openDemocracy’s website consists of lively discussion forums, in addition to topical articles; it serves as a global network of people committed to making the world a better place.

openDemocracy is based in London and also has an office in New York, in addition to its online presence. openDemocracy recently announced that they will be releasing the majority of their articles under a Creative Commons license as part of their commitment to global democracy. In recognition of openDemocracy’s launch of Creative Commons licensing, Siva Vaidhyanathan, has written a welcoming article outlining the history of the Creative Commons that appears on openDemocracy. Siva is a cultural historian and media scholar, and is currently an assistant professor of Culture and Communication at New York University.

Mia Garlick spoke with Solana Larsen about openDemocracy’s switch to Creative Commons licensing. Solana is a Commissioning Editor at openDemocracy and also heads up openDemocracy’s New York office. She is Danish-Puerto Rican, holds an MA in international journalism from City University in London and is herself a published author.

Creative Commons (“CC”): Can you tell us about the nature of openDemocracy?

Solana Larson of openDemocracy (“oD”): openDemocracy is an online magazine and also more than just an online magazine. openDemocracy is committed to debating global issues and supporting democracy. We provide background on a lot of the issues that the mainstream press skate over. Our authors tend to be the top thinkers, movers and shakers in their field: mainly scholars, journalists, and policymakers, and from across the political spectrum.

Our objective, through our website, is to make difficult or remote issues easily accessible and interesting to anyone, no matter where they live in the world. Instead of making foreign politics exotic, we try to present things in a way that makes it easy to understand. To explain, for example, why an American, a Briton, or an Egyptian should be interested in, say, Brazilian democracy.

We are also committed to facilitating discussions about issues by the people most affected by them. For example, in the run up to the Iraq war, many people would use Iraqi opinion to support their own views. As far as the media goes, openDemocracy was one of the few publishers, if not the only publisher, who set up roundtable discussions between Iraqis themselves. We’re not scared to put people who disagree in the same room. Right now we are looking closely at Iran, and we’ve set up a weblog with writers inside and outside the country to observe the presidential elections.

CC: How did openDemocracy come to the decision that it wanted to apply a Creative Commons license to its articles?

oD: Editorially, openDemocracy has paid a great deal of attention to the legal struggles that led to the development of the Creative Commons, and interviewed both Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond when Napster was still a big story. Intellectually, it was a piece of cake to see that the Creative Commons offers a constructive and democratic solution to a really huge problem. Practically, it was harder to walk boldly into unknown territory. Most of us were more familiar with the print model of thinking, and we reasoned that if people could read openDemocracy articles elsewhere they would have no reason to visit the website.

Initially, we placed older articles behind an archive barrier and charged subscription fees. At first, we let people choose themselves how much they wanted to pay. Later, we set a fixed price. Although many signed up, it wasn’t really sustainable but, more importantly, it just didn’t fit our ethos. When we surveyed subscribers, many said they gave us money because they liked us; not because they wanted to access the archive.

Now openDemocracy is finished with closing off information to the world. The archives have been opened, we only ask for donations now, and we’re encouraging all our authors to release their work under Creative Commons licenses.

Our commitment is to getting ideas out in circulation, and even from a survival perspective it makes sense. We are confident people will read republished articles and be drawn to the source by curiosity. We hope readers will begin to think of us more as a resource for their intellectual or political causes rather than just an online magazine.

CC: As part of switching over to Creative Commons licensing, openDemocracy has gone through the process of approaching many authors of articles that have previously been published by openDemocracy to ask if they were willing to make their article available under a Creative Commons license. What have been the different types of reactions of your authors?

oD: openDemocracy has an archive of more than 2,600 articles. Initially, we’ve only approached the 350 authors from the past year about making their work available under a Creative Commons license. It’s difficult to get responses from everyone when you send a mass email, and people are always changing addresses. But of the 160 or so who have responded 150 have said yes, and that amounts to hundreds of articles. The enthusiasm has been genuine.

We have been surprised by how few of our authors seemed to know about the Creative Commons before we told them about it. It feels like we’ve already done important work simply by telling them about our new policy. They’ve praised, applauded, and thanked us for taking the initiative on this.

When authors have voiced concerns or said no it’s generally been because they’ve already signed away their rights to book publishers, or don’t want to deal with asking permissions. Although, Salman Rushdie opted out for his own reasons (“Sorry to be old-fashioned”). And another author was concerned with moral rights, and how his work could be used in publications that disagree with him. He asked his agent for advice and they decided it was best to stick with what they knew.

We don’t pretend to know what’s right for each individual author. Many of the people who write for us sell books or articles for a living. Just because they agree to the Creative Commons on openDemocracy they may not change their practices otherwise. But it might inspire them to change over in the future.

CC: openDemocracy is asking its authors on a going forward basis to publish their works under a Creative Commons license. Do you have a sense of what the likely reaction will be going forward?

oD: Our focus has been on creating an internal system that would make it easy for authors to opt in to Creative Commons licensing over the Internet before we publish their articles. The Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license is going to be our default license. In special cases we will allow people to go for traditional “all rights reserved” copyright, or, like Siva Vaidhyanathan, to opt for a license that is even more permissive. Siva opted to allow derivative works.

Already we’re setting “free” articles by writers in Mexico, Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Indian, Australia, the UK and United States. The list is even longer. This is a day to celebrate. We’re serious about the need for a Creative Commons and we’re serious about taking it worldwide.

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