[note: much of the insight into this post came from Gabriella Coleman and the commenters on her blog. I think that one of the major developments in journalism has already been, and will continue to be, the integration of journalism and computer programming (indeed, see http://www.holovaty.com/writing/fundamental-change/ for a perfect example) and I’m hoping to build my next big research project on these types of questions. For journalists who are interested in this topic, I’d recommend regular reading Biella’s blog and the blog Hacker Visions. I’d also rec’ the book Two Bits, by Christopher Kelty, which you can read for free here.]
Yesterday, a big piece of news hit the “future-of-journalism community”– Everyblock, a “microlocal” news project started by web developer and former online newspaper employee Adrian Holovaty, had been purchased by msnbc.com for an undisclosed sum (speculation and rumors ran somewhere in the low 7 6-figures). Everyblock began as a 2-year funded project of the Knight News Challenge, and when its funding period expired, Holovaty was openly musing on what the next steps in the project would be, and how it could be sustained without the grant. (This is a big question facing nearly all the grant-supported journalism projects that have emerged in the last two years.) So the purchase of Everyblock looked like a win-win-win all around; the project could go on, it would “infect” the wider news ecosystem with its forward thinking energy; the creators would receive a monetary reward for their work. And best of all, the original code of Everyblock, under the terms of the Knight Challenge Grant, was available to the world because it was required to be open source.
The only sticking point– perhaps only to me, though I saw that Brian Boyer and a few other folks on Twitter mention things along similar lines– was that all future versions of the code (including versions compiled by the developers after June 30 before the msnbc.com sale) were not required to be open. In fact, as was made clear in an interview with Paid Content on the day of the sale:
The future of the code: EveryBlock’s platform is open source, meaning it can potentially be replicated by competing sites. But Holovaty and Tillinghast say that others will only have access to the code as it existed on June 30—when it was initially released—meaning MSNBC.com will likely have an edge over any competitors. “What happens after that we’re not obligated to make that open source,” Holovaty says, adding that so far only a handful of sites have actually adopted the code.
As I tweeted earlier in the day, this seemed like something of a reappropriation of “common work” by “capital” (two loaded terms, but hey, whats Twitter for?)– in which grant money was basically used to fund the beta development of a piece of software that was (once it was far enough along) bought-up and locked-up by a very large media and software company. Of course, this happens all the time in the digital world, but it seemed contradictory to Knight’s original goals of making the code open source in the first place; or so I assumed, knowing nothing at all about what Knight really wanted.
As I started investigating what was legal and what was ethical surrounding the Everyblock sale, I once again realized how little journalists (and most communications professors) know about the world of Free and Open-Source Software (and how little, in some ways, the residents of that world know about journalism). There’s a lot that journalists, coders, and (in particular) foundations like Knight can learn from this, the first big acquisition of a Challenge project by “big media.”
The gist is this: Under the terms of their initial GPL, Holovaty and the other developers can do whatever they want with their code (after fulfilling the Knight requirement) because they hold copyright. There’s additional nuance brought about by the fact that Everyblock is a web service and not and piece of “software” per se. The is a difference— and thus some confusion to me– between a “BSD” license and a GPL license (confusion because Knight required Everyblock to be released under GPL v 3.o. This initial requirement also raises the question– to me– about how closely Everyblock is following the spirit, if not the letter, of the original Knight grant by allowing MSNBC to claim proprietary rights over future versions Everblock). I also learned that not everyone in the “Free and Open Source Software” community agrees with everyone else, and some people probably wont agree with anything I’ve just said. There’s even a debate (a big one) about the difference between “Free” and “Open” software.
Thats the gist. If you want to get into details, click below. Also below, I dispense some unasked for advice to the Knight Foundation about how they can signal their code intentions more clearly going forward.
One more thing: What would I like to see? I’d like to see all future versions of code devloped under the Knight grant remain open, whoever buys them. I think this is an ethical use of Knight grant money — and a good business strategy as well.
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