Forum .LRN Q&A: .LRN Consortium - Yet Another Governance Discussion

Carl is at Harvard Medical School (the "other" school in Cambridge) and we have had several spirited discussions about .LRN. I am happy to report that .LRN is alive and well and growing rapidly, thanks to everyone in the OpenACS community. I will have more to report on new adoptions in the coming weeks.

One of our priorities now is to get going with the .LRN consortium. We will do this in two stages. The first step will be to constitute an "informal" consortium. The criterion for membership is simple: any organization, institution, or organization who uses .LRN qualifes as a member. I will post more information on the informal consortium this weekend.

We wanted to get the community's thoughts on the formal consortium, which we need to establish soon. What should be the criteria for membership? What should be its goals? How should it be related to openACS etc. So we invite your thoughts, comments, and reflections on the formation of a .LRN consortium. We are also interested in getting your feedback on what's working, what's not working, and what areas we need to focus on. Thank you in advance for participating in yet another governance discussion.

In an ideal world, the .LRN consortium would be a patron, a resource-strong sponsor of toolkit research and development. The consortium would be the main client of the many and well-distributed toolkit developing companies and individuals, who would find themselves serving a more knowledgeable and competent buyer without having to chase after it. In order for this to work, the consortium's budget would have to be large, built up by substantial membership fees from the .LRN universities around the world. But a large budget should not imply that funding is necessarily directed toward large projects. So-called "bike-shedding" must be avoided.

Bike-shedding (if I understand it correctly) is when small and non-risky projects, like building bike sheds, don't get any financing, because larger and riskier projects, like building power plants, are perceived as more substantial or professional and therefore easier and (paradoxically) safer to fund. As the OpenACS community of developers is a decentralized collection of specialized and precious resources, this funding strategy would be unusually inappropriate. It would mean that only one or two companies that are large enough would receive all the funding while the great majority of skillful and valuable developers would get none. Then the whole idea about avoiding vendor lock-in and monopolization would fall, along with so many toolkit developers.

From this perspective the problem and solution lie in forming a consortium that is an effective toolkit developing client. It needs to be able to collect a large pot of money and quickly distribute small portions of it throughout the (technical and evangelical) developer network. The consortium must rely heavily on the technical expertise of the OCT (or .LRN TAB) in order to be a conscious consumer of code. But it must also be a happy and frequent spender, because in this context spending means investing; the better the .LRN toolkit becomes, the more adopters it gets, and the more member fees flow into the spending machine that is the consortium. Let's get the money rolling!

Posted by Caroline Meeks on
Al and Carl,

Please clarify the copy write and licence of the dotLRN logo, the current and future content of and any paper targeted material the dotLRN consortium may produce in the future?


Posted by Alfred Essa on
.LRN license is GPL, the same as OpenACS. .LRN should be distributed with the same copyright as OpenACS. As for the rest of the question, I would like to hear the views of the community.
Posted by Caroline Meeks on
.LRN license is GPL, the same as OpenACS. .LRN should be distributed with the same copyright as OpenACS. As for the rest of the question, I would like to hear the views of the community.
Are you referring to the code in the first sentance? The code is clearly labled as GPL and MIT is the main copy right holder, correct?

If so I guess the rest would be

  • .LRN Name
  • Content on
  • Intended for Paper materials produced by the .LRN Consortium marketing or describing .LRN
Anything else?

Al, can you please clarify who currently holds the copy right on the above items?

In case anyone hasn't guessed I vote for GPL!

What do other people think?

Posted by Dave Bauer on
I think it needs to be clear who holds the copyright on the .LRN logo and site contents. Ideally there would be a GPL liscense for the content and descriptions of .LRN, logos, and any web sites.

I can't see any reason why logos and other stuff to promote dotLRN should not be usable by the same people who can use the code.

Posted by Alfred Essa on
.LRN license is GPL, so there is no vote involved here.
Al, it's probably my English but I would appreciate if you could post who has the copyright for the .LRN **logo**? Also, what about the content at
Posted by Samir Joshi on
Yes, the dotLRN  “source code license” has no choice but to be GPL because of viral effect of OpenACS being GPL. However, copyright holder (MIT/Sloan in most cases - we did porting for some modules to Postgres and marked them copyright Symphinity - I would like to make it copyright OpenACS or FSF or whatever the consensus emerges) can release source-code under new license terms including commercial one. So ownership of copyright for source code is important in determining continued spirit and degree of freedom in future.

But '.LRN' logo and the website is a different beast - and its ownership is so far not clear - It is all about ownership of the ‘brand’.

BTW, Carl, for how long are you in Cambridge - I am here too. Is a little .LRN / OpenACS social possible? I think  OpenACS Cambridge social is  overdue... Tali / Dave, you hear ?


Posted by Alfred Essa on
Neophytos, I hadn't even thought of this. Unfortunately, the default position in the U.S. is that content, logos, end up being copyrighted unless one explicitly establishes otherwise.

We will put up a "creative commons license" on the web site, which is similar to GPL and will allow people free and unfettered use of logos and content that appears on the .LRN web site. A good FAQ on the creative commons license can be found at the Harvard WebLogs web site.

Thanks Al!

I will follow suit and put all of my dotLRN and OpenACS for Nonprofits/NGO related marketing materials on under the same licence.

Posted by Alfred Essa on
We can host the social at Sloan.
Posted by Alfred Essa on
  1. .LRN license is clearly GPL.
  2. .LRN copyright should be same copyright OpenACS community decides it wants to use to distribute OpenACS (e.g. OpenACS, FSF).
  3. .LRN logos, content on web site, marketing materials should be "open" and available for everyone to use and distribute similar to GPL (via creative commons license)
Posted by Alfred Essa on
Steffan, Thank you for the eloquent statement. A couple of comments:

As you note, one of the consortium's biggest challenges will be to define a funding strategy. There seems to be an emerging consensus in the business community that pure open source plays, such as OpenACS / .LRN, do not have an adequate business model and will fail in the long run. What this means for us, I believe, is that the funding strategy has to be more than just raising large amounts of money or charging "substantial membership fees". One of the reasons why many of us are in this game is that we cannot afford the capital investment and substantial license fees associated with proprietary software. {MIT is confronting a 10-15% cut next year.} The alternative is to define new business models and sustainable enterprises, which are grounded in economic reality, but connect industry, society, and the environment. This is why OpenACS/.LRN partnerships among the developers, universities, ngos is potentially very powerful if we collectively figure out how to harness our collective experience, energy, and resources.

A second point concerning small projects. There is good evidence that truly innovative organizations encourage and invest in smaller, autonomous R&D projects at the margins since this is likely to be a very important spring for new ideas and insights. I would hope that the consortium can also fund small R&D grants.

Posted by Samir Joshi on
Thanks Al - that clarifies everything !

And about social - I am looking forward to it already ! At MSU despite our early start with LRN, we had been slow of late, and meeting with the community can be very helpful.


Thank you, Al. I can see that anyone reading my post would come to the conclusion that I'm proposing a large increase in funding by the .LRN entities, such as MIT, but in fact I'm not. When I speak of a "large budget" and "substantial membership fees", this says more about my awe and respect for any sum exceeding a few bucks than the actual amount of money I'm referring to itself. The sums I'm imagining surely aren't bigger than those you handle already; they're probably smaller. What I call for is actually not more money but faster money, because pennies are like stones - they really only rock when they roll.

The way I see it, membership fees would actually reduce costs and risks for the paying members, as they jointly invest in R&D through the consortium. For those .LRN patrons who do most of the investing in the toolkit today, such as MIT, this would almost certainly be the case. But even if we give up the idea of (not-so-substantial) membership fees, with the more equal and fair investment they entail, it would still be a good idea if all investing in the toolkit itself were to be channeled through the consortium. No matter how its budget is collected or how big this budget is, the consortium would be the buyer of .LRN R&D.

Just like the toolkit producers have their OCT, the toolkit consumers would be equally strengthened by having an interest group of their own - the consortium - forming. The partnership we would all benefit the most from, Al, is perhaps that between those two toolkit promoters. The OpenACS community, encompassing both the producers and the consumers, would then appear more as a well-conducted concert than as a chaotic collection of artists desperately tooting their own horns. We need to start conducting ourselves as an orchestra before people resort to sax and violins...

Seriously, I believe that our community has some sort of pre- or post-modern corporate identity, where the community is thought of as a body and the toolkit producers and consumers essentially acknowledge their common interests and work together. We're too small for unregulated competition to work and must focus on cooperation. That's why I believe in a consortium that is a patron, actively looking after the well being of the producers. The organizational structure of the community and the business model must reflect our true nature if we're going to be really successful, I figure.

Anyway, I'm very pleased that you appreciate the importance of small projects/grants.

Al, I'm not sure I got a clear response above so I'll be more specific.

If some group of people were working on a learning and community toolkit other than .LRN (TM) would they be allowed to use .LRN (TM) to *publish* their benchmark results and is that written/stated somewhere on the .LRN (TM) website?

For example, AFAIK Oracle does not allow third parties to publish benchmarks that include the name "Oracle". Would the .LRN (TM) name be allowed in such (published) benchmarks?

Posted by Don Baccus on
Oracle specifically prohibits such disclosures in their *license* - it has nothing to do with trademark.  Since Oracle is proprietary software you can't use it without agreeing to their license - when you download it for free you're asked to agree to a license online, too.

If you'll read the GPL closely you'll find no such prohibition on disclosure of benchmark or details of any other experience you have with .LRN.

Nor does US trademark law prohibit you from saying ".LRN(tm)" whenever you want as long as you acknowledge the trademark.  The only purpose of trademark law is to protect the name and graphic from being stolen by others.

Also trademarks can slip into common usage if you don't defend it, as "xerox" has here in the United States as a synonym for "photocopy".  If ".LRN" becomes the popular english slan noun for "web-based e-learning system" I doubt any of us will complain, though! :)

Posted by Rafael Calvo on

Thank you for opening the discussion. I think it is a very important one since the community and number of end users is growing quickly, it is becoming a more viable solution for more institutions. These institutions (mostly universities, but some corporates) are looking for ways to reduce "perceived" risk. I think this consortium is one of the most important tools for achieving this. I am quoting the perception bit, because I want to make a differentiation between the technical and the business parts. Technically the consortium has no influence in quality, except for bringing money to improve the system. But, businesses want to know that other institutions are using the system: the CTO needs to feel that he is not along if he goes the .LRN way. The consortium should give these people (and institutions) the feeling of support that this community has done so well at the developers level.

Going back to your questions:

* What should be its goals?
- Provide communty of institutional "aliances" that can provide support to existing and incoming members. Aliances here are based on informal collaboration around a common goal (improve teaching, reduce cost, etc using .LRN)
- Be a face (not the only one) that can be used to bring in new players. A call from the CIO of Sloan, or a manager from Heidelberg, or some of the people I expect to see there can make wonders in many places. If you have several people like these (managers & academics) you can do even more.
- Coordinate investment (as mentioned earlier)
- Advocacy at the non technical level. Most of the community  is based on programmers with probably very litle reach to business managers. The consortium my help channel advocacy at this level.

* What should be the criteria for membership?
- Like you said, I think members should be those "organizations" that use (and hopefully conributes) to .LRN.
What are organizations? Of course, companies and Unviversities but maybe smaller business units as well.
A condition of membership could be that the consortium is allowed to mention the institution as a user of .LRN. This is not always trivial.

* How should it be related to openACS etc.
OpenACS is the framework on top of which we are building .LRN. Improvements to .LRN will improve the framework so they are very intercorrelated, but they are different in several ways: OpenACS is the technical community, the consortium (as I see it) is more business. Also the software is somewhat different: in the WebCT vista product BEA is the framework and WebCT the Application built on top. The two are different companies. I think we can do better by a better integration (business and technical) of the two layers.

I leave it here to see what people think


Posted by Alfred Essa on
If some group of people were working on a learning and community toolkit other than .LRN (TM) would they be allowed to use .LRN (TM) to *publish* their benchmark results and is that written/stated somewhere on the .LRN (TM) website?

I am not sure I understand completely your question, particularly about benchmarks. But let me give it a shot. I need to distinguish use of the trademark as opposed to use of the .LRN brand. Having the trademark means that somebody can't come along and create *another software and call it .LRN. Let's say, for example, that a company develops software, open source or proprietary, and starts selling it or distributing it as ".LRN". This would be a violation of trademark.

I believe Apache Foundation has the trademark for Apache. Someone can fork the Apache software or build a completely different web server, but they can't distribute or sell it as "Apache". The same would apply to .LRN.

The other part of your question has to do, I think, with who can use the logo or mention ".LRN". If a group of people develop another software and benchmark .LRN against their software, would they able to publish it on their web site? Yes. If their benchmarks are misleading, we would try to counter it by argument not lawsuit. In terms of the .LRN brand, we see that as being owned by the community. Indeed, we encourage anyone and everyone to publicize and market .LRN and .LRN logo as they wish. The more the better.

Thanks for the  replies.