OERs: Publishing Software – Open source or Open API

This blog post relates to my study of Open Educational Resources as part of my Emerging Technologies for Learning Program of study at the University of Manitoba.

I have been asked to comment on the use of “free” open source applications in the context of OERs.  I blogged about this just recently.  My classmate, Stu has responded to the same question in his blog post where he discusses the virtues of open source software in the creation of content in Education. Comparisons have also been drawn between the virtues of open source software, and open educational resources.  It is true that there are some similarities in the spirit of each of these models of publishing and sharing.  Like me in my blog post, Stu highlights the benefits of free technology such as Google Apps in education. However, a clear distinct needs to be made – Google Apps is not open source software.

Google Apps is part of a new breed of software known as cloud computing software.  It brings new ways of sharing and re-using information.  While in spirit, cloud computing software appears to be “open source”, it is in fact typically “open API“.  So what is an API?  In short, it is a published and standardised way for computer programs to interact with one another, typically on the web.

An example will do well here.  Consider flickr.  There are many different software products for uploading your photos into flickr. Each of these products uses the Flickr API to login to your flickr account, select your photo files, tag them, title them, and upload them into Flickr, and so on. Google has similar APIs for interacting with their Google Apps services, and in fact most of their cloud services.

While the API is open and anyone (who is authorised by the service provider) can write programs to interact with the service, the service software programming source code isn’t is open.  So it’s behaviour cannot be changed or extended or adapted for other contexts.  It also means that if the service provider decides to change the terms of the service (Ning) or simply decides to shut them down (ask Google Wave customers about that), then you are out of luck.

Google’s terms of service for Picasa just stink!

I am looking for an option for sharing my photos with family and friends.  I like the licence agreement afforded by flickr, but sadly I would also like a client interface that provides simple and efficient synchronisation of my photo albums.  I want to be able to add my tags, captions, titles, descriptions and photo albums in a local application, and then replicate that to an online presence with a single click.  I have yet to find this for flickr.  Picasa on the other hand provides this functionality in conjunction with Google Web Albums, and I was all but ready to sign up until I read their terms of service.

Point 11.1 states:

11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This licence is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

As pointed out by  Sam, it is abhorrent to think that by simply using their services, you are granting them a “perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free” licence to your images to “promote” their services.  Even if you cancel your agreement with Googe in using their service, they still have perpetual access to your content.

By contrast, Yahoo!7 has this to say regarding their services (including Flickr):

With respect to photos, graphics, audio or video you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Service other than Yahoo!7 Groups, the license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such Content on the Service solely for the purpose for which such Content was submitted or made available. This license exists only for as long as you elect to continue to include such Content on the Service and will terminate at the time you remove or Yahoo!7 removes such Content from the Service.

Note that if you remove the content from their service, you also revoke their licence to use it.  Furthermore, the licence only applies to contact you make publicly available – perfectly reasonable and necessary for them to carry out the service.  So your private photos that you share only with your friends and family are off limits.  Congrats to Yahoo for taking such a fair and reasonable approach to their terms of service.

Come on google, don’t be so greedy.