Hugh McGuire “Technical tools on their own are not enough — we also need rich communities that have a sense of why they are contributing to the commons.”

Hugh has been building tools and communities to bring books onto the open web since about 2005 and is the founder of (free public domain audiobooks, made by volunteers from around the world) and Pressbooks (an open source book publishing platform built on WordPress). Hugh is the Executive Director of the Rebus Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to building the infrastructure to support books on the open web by building a new collaborative model for creating and publishing Open Educational Resources (OER) and an open platform for scholarly reading.

This is an edited version of an interview conducted by Christine Prefontaine at the Humans of the Commons listening lounge at the 2018 Creative Commons Summit. The content is copyright Creative Commons and appears on StoryEngine under a Creative Commons Attribution license. To listen to more interviews in this series visit Loup.Design/Commons


Hugh’s Story

Can you tell a bit about you and your work? Perhaps starting with a broad overview, and then highlighting specific projects?

I’m Hugh McGuire, I live in Montreal, and I work a a number of projects related to Creative Commons. One is the Rebus Foundation and the Rebus community and another is Pressbooks and another is LibriVox. The overarching theme connecting all of these is around using the web to connect to people to create content of various kinds, with a specific focus over the years on books and things that books might evolve into as we use the web as a primary transmission platform.

The Rebus community is a platform to help groups of people get together to produce open textbooks and open educational resources. Pressbooks is a tool that helps the actual authoring and publication of those resources into different formats — including web formats.

I also have long-standing project called LibriVox, which gets volunteers from around the world to make audio recordings of public domain texts and make them available for free on the internet.

Thinking about your work, can you tell me about a moment when you felt a sense of success?

We launched the Rebus community in November 2016 and convinced Christina Hendricks, who is very active in the Open Educational Resource (OER) space, to come on as one of our first project leads to develop an open textbook called Introduction to Philosophy. Just watching that project evolve and seeing the amount of activity from people around the world — really seeing all the different people coming and joining that project from India, from Africa, from America, from the UK — it was that moment where the hope that we could build mechanisms to inspire people to work together on Open Educational Resources and open textbooks was clearly working. People started joining through word-of-mouth on the web. That point where we realized that this model may work in the educational space. We had seen this model work in other spaces, but this was the first success in the educational space.

Can you tell me about a recent or recurring challenge in your work?

There’s a fundamental tension in the open space around sustainability — especially with the internet as  we know it now. There’s a conflict between the basic business models of the web around ad-based surveillance and ways to extract value and what the open community is trying to do.

If I look back a decade, we were optimistic and idealistic about what the web would bring in terms of opening content and opening collaboration. Now it’s very clear that things are more complicated and finding the right sort of sustainable financial models and equitable models around freedom and content is going to be an ongoing challenge — and probably the biggest one.

There’s a conflict that open content runs into with commercial interests that can exploit and build on open content in a way that doesn’t give back to the community. One solution to that is more restrictive licenses, but that breaks a lot of what we want, which is the ability to build on things. That’s an unresolved problem that is fundamental — the challenges around these business or financial sustainability models and the unbalanced and non-equitable relationships with the bigger commercial players.

Looking back over the last year, what would you highlight as the most significant change that took place in your work?

While there’s a challenge around models, there are entities that we — the Rebus Foundation — work with in the educational space who are clearly starting to embrace this model of open educational content. These are educational institutions — universities, colleges, and large state- or province-wide systems — who have a stake and an interest themselves in finding a model that works and have a willingness to fund ideas.

We’re finding institutions who have funding behind them and who have a stake and an interest in changing the models — and we’re helping them develop a solution. So I would say that the answer is: While we’ve been talking about what we’re trying to do, we’re now finally seeing openness from educational institutions to support this kind of work — and that’s a very encouraging sign and that’s new over the last year. When we started we were trying to prove out a model, and now that we’ve done that we’re looking at what the next steps will look like — and we’ve been very encouraged by the response from the educational institutions that we’ve been talking to.

What is something you’re looking forward to in your work over the next year?

I’m looking forward to taking that next step — from having an idea and proving it on a small scale to starting to think of it as something more that is growing — something happening on a bigger scale with a much broader range of partners. Moving from the idea to something that is really happening and that is growing.

Can you describe to me your journey or pathway into Creative Commons?

Creative Commons and Lawrence Lessig‘s writing was a foundational piece of my understanding of what the world could look like. I discovered that in 2004, along with the free software movement. Creative Commons is a mechanism to take and build on content by default — and not having to ask about it. I’m not sure when Creative Commons was founded, but from the earliest days it struck me as a fundamental piece of the legal and intellectual infrastructure that had to be there so that we could think differently about how to share ideas.

With LibriVox, we started using the CC Zero license as soon as it became available and everything that we’re doing with Rebus has a CC license attached to it.

Lawrence Lessig’s work provided the missing piece — he made the argument that if we want to have a universe that allows for more innovation we have to open up ideas to flow in ways that digital makes it easy to do. Creative Commons is a critical piece is fighting against the desire to close down ideas.

What do you perceive to be the greatest threat to the future of the commons?

There’s a fundamental imbalance with the way the web operates now. We had a very idealistic view of the web ten or fifteen years ago. The power that Facebook and Google have — big web platforms, but the same is true for even much smaller ones — in terms of funding for the sorts of work we do means that there is the possibility to absorb and exploit all the good things that people produce and share. This is a problem because it disincentivizes or causes a chilling effect on people’s willingness to collaborate and share. Especially when they see things they’ve shared exploited in ways that make them feel uncomfortable.

There are a whole bunch of problems with how the web is structured right now. One of the things that I always loved about the open software movement — the free software movement specifically, and also Creative Commons for that matter — is that it allows those interested to build a different model and a different way of doing things. While that way of working can live in parallel, there’s a danger when it gets absorbed and exploited by larger commercial entities. It causes problems in these communities and dampens the energy put toward sharing.

That said, LibriVox is a project that has stayed stable. It hasn’t grown much beyond when it first blossomed and it continues on — oblivious to the things that happen around it on the web. That might be part of the answer: We have to keep fighting the good fight because we believe in it and be less worried about what happens to the good things that we create. But I’m not sure.

What makes you optimistic about the future of the commons?

I’m at once both an extremely pessimistic person an an extremely optimistic person. At a very basic level, what keeps me optimistic is that crazy projects keep going and we see new crazy projects all the time. And I’ve found ways to keep working in this weird space — and seem to keep convincing other people to join, get on board, and contribute their talents. So I’m optimistic just because there’s no other choice but to do the things that we care about — and there are people who are continuing to be willing to work — maybe in the face of daunting headwinds of what the rest of the world is doing. But that’s what makes me optimistic: people are still committed to changing and lots of people are still working on really exciting and interesting things that are making a difference.

How have you used the commons to advance your work or meet your goals?

Most of the projects that I’ve done are built around the idea of trying to enrich and build a fuller commons. Really my fundamental mission in life is to help give people the tools and platforms to contribute to a richer commons. It’s completely wrapped into the fabric of everything that I’m trying to do.

How would you explain to someone the link between a vibrant commons and a better world?

That’s easy. To me, a vibrant world is easier to achieve when the greatest number of people have the most tools to build whatever it is they want to build, whether it’s solutions to problems or art or whatever. So a having vibrant commons means that people have more tools and more resources to build the things they want to build — and do the things they want to do. And that in and of itself builds a more vibrant world. It’s a very simple connection for me.

For you, what does it mean to support the commons?

Supporting the commons is about finding ways to build the technical tools, but also the frameworks for communities that are committed to the commons. Technical tools on their own are not enough — we also need rich communities that have a sense of why they are contributing to the commons. So there are two pieces: tools but also — critically — the communities and the culture around the commons.