Open Access in Practice: A Conversation with President Larry Kramer of The Hewlett Foundation

Victoria Heath

Since the founding of Creative Commons (CC) in 2001, we’ve been supported by like-minded organizations and individuals who value open access, the open community, and the global commons as much as we do. As we near our 20th anniversary, we are reflecting on the past and planning for the future. What better way to do that than to hear from the supporters who have made our work possible over the last 20 years?

The Hewlett FoundationThe William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has been a longtime CC supporter and thought partner. We reached out to the Foundation’s President, Larry Kramer, for his thoughts on the value of open access in the Foundation’s philanthropic work and the future he envisions for the open movement.?

Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.?


CC: The Hewlett Foundation has been a funder and partner of CC for over a decade. Can you talk about the value the Foundation has found in CC’s work, and why open access is so important?

Larry Kramer: Openness is one of our core guiding principles. We believe that sharing our knowledge and experiences—our challenges as well as our successes—with others can both build trust and invite their ideas for how we can improve. We are committed to continuous learning, and we see open access as a key part of that goal.?

When Creative Commons was founded, the notion that content creators would routinely allow others to use or modify their work seemed far-fetched. Today, Creative Commons stewards a large and growing movement to make knowledge more freely available, to foster collaboration, and to spur advances and improvements that make the world a better place for everyone. At the most basic level, the sharing that Creative Commons facilitates increases the chances that good ideas will be heard and have an impact. We care a lot about that, which is why Creative Commons has been such a longstanding partner.?

CC: In 2014, the Hewlett Foundation extended its open licensing policy to all grantees, writing: “Solving the kinds of challenges the Hewlett Foundation chooses to address requires good ideas, but ideas are not enough. Asking grantees to make sure their ideas are shared, so others can learn from and build on them, will help those ideas go further, be challenged and strengthened, and, in the end, do more good.”?

Can you take us through the process behind this decision?

Larry Kramer: The Hewlett Foundation has long had a policy of making information related to our grantmaking available under an open license so that others can learn from our experience. We share evaluations that our organization commissions, as well as our strategy papers and non-confidential information about individual grants. In 2014, we extended our commitment to open licensing to include, under most circumstances, materials created with our grant dollars. The basic decision was not difficult: we believe in openness and the benefits it produces, and it seemed straightforward to apply that principle to things produced with our funding as well as to things we produce ourselves. But we also knew that a blanket rule would not work, because we support diverse areas of work, produced in many different contexts, by organizations with different operational models. For example, a policy like this would affect researchers at a think tank quite differently from artists in a performing arts organization. So we thought this through carefully and only acted after conversations internally and with grantees, crafting a policy to ensure that it did not inadvertently hurt or burden grantees. At the end of the consultation process, we emerged with a new language for project grants and a toolkit for grantees to understand how to implement these requirements.?

Happily, the shift has worked out very well. In fields with very scant resources, understanding how to actually go about openly licensing something can be confusing. We have tried to build an understanding amongst our grantees and peer funding partners of what open licensing is, and how it can contribute to their goals. Where necessary, we sometimes provide legal counsel to grantees who are trying to figure out the best way to do this.?

CC: Advocates of open access believe that it can lead to a more accessible, equitable, and innovative world. Can you share any examples of how the Foundation has seen this idea at work??

Women that are members of Nairobi Young and Old cooperative
Women that are members of the Nairobi Young and Old Cooperative group at their small center where they make income-generating products that are sold at local markets and provide personal income for the women. They are supported by DSW (Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung). Image by Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment, June 2014 (CC BY-NC).

Larry Kramer: One concrete example is our Images of Empowerment collection of 2,000 openly licensed images of women in 11 countries around the world. It’s well established that visuals can both create and change our biases and inspire action. Several years ago, one of our program officers in our Global Development and Population portfolio wanted to change how we “see” women in developing countries. Working with Getty Images, we funded a new set of stock photos that show women making decisions, earning income, and accessing reproductive health care and services to care for themselves and their families. Our purpose was twofold: provide a more accurate, positive representation of women’s lives and make the images a public good, free for any nonprofit to use. We knew that open licensing would be a necessary component to help encourage use and reuse. Nonprofits seldom have affordable or easy access to images that tell their stories or show their impact. The photographs were intended to fill that gap for both advocates doing this work and newsrooms that cover these issues. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation have since added to the collection, and the full set now includes 2,000 high-quality, editorial images of women working and acting in their communities in Colombia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Peru, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Thailand, Uganda, and the United States.?

Another example is our long-term investment in free, remixable, revisable learning materials, termed as open educational resources (OER). Like CC, Hewlett has been investing in OER since its inception in 2001. We believe that access to knowledge should never be a barrier to learning, and OER provides a stream of high-quality educational opportunities for students around the world.?Creative Commons was among our first OER grantees because it provides the backbone of OER’s infrastructure. As OER has grown in usage and as a field, Creative Commons has provided consistent support to our grantees. That work is now benefiting countless students all over the world who have been forced abruptly to switch to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are lessons being learned about how well these materials can work that will carry over once the pandemic ends.?

CC: What challenges and/or barriers exist that may be stopping other philanthropic foundations from adopting open access policies??

Larry Kramer: There are at least two sources of hesitation when it comes to embracing open access policies, both of which may apply more broadly than just to philanthropic foundations. First, there’s a lack of understanding about open licensing—what it is, why it matters, and how it works. Open access is an entirely new topic for many organizational leaders. Second, there is also hesitation to impose a new priority of this sort onto the culture of an organization or its grantees. A truly impactful open access policy has implications for every department in the organization—from technical assistance required from a legal team to the Communications Department’s choosing of images for the organization’s website. Change management is always difficult, and something this far-reaching can be a heavy undertaking.?

To encourage open access policies, Creative Commons could build on initiatives like the CC Certificate that approach the topic of open access from different perspectives. While the work itself is about legal licensing, open access can help solve a variety of problems, and it’s important to show that to organizational leaders—to offer stories about what works and how open access can help. It would also help to connect open access policies to other change management efforts that are undertaken at periodic intervals in philanthropic organizations.?

Students talk about a presentation
A middle school student explains the inspiration for his art project to classmates. Image by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action (CC BY-NC), an open-access image collection commissioned by The Hewlett Foundation.

CC: As we look forward five to ten years, what do you think “success” looks like in regards to open access policy and advocacy?

Larry Kramer: The global COVID-19 pandemic has deepened and highlighted longtime inequities that have plagued access to education and basic healthcare around the world. It has also shown how important it is for people to be able to collaborate, learn together, and build on each other’s thinking. It would be wonderful if, in the wake of everything happening in 2020, nations around the world adopt policies that require all publicly funded research and learning resources to be openly licensed. Given the crisis of access to learning materials exposed by the need to use distance learning, we should see an increase in educational institutions’ support for creating and using OER. We would also welcome commitments from other foundations to join us in adopting open access policies so that efforts and products intended to benefit the public good can be owned and freely used by the public.?

Please consider donating to Creative Commons so that we can continue stewarding the CC licenses and building the open access tools and platforms individuals and organizations, like The Hewlett Foundation, use to share. If you’d like to learn more about implementing open access policies and utilizing open licenses, check out the CC Certificate course or this free ebook.?

Thank you to Larry Kramer for offering his time and thoughtful words, Neha Gohil for helping us pull this piece together, and the entire staff of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for their support.?