The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Feb 28, 2012

Knight News Challenge Networks: Open is better

Posted by John Bracken

Photo Credit: Flickr User Jason A. Samfield

Note: To apply for the News Challenge, and read our FAQ, visit

A friend recently wrote that “open-source licenses are one of the most confusing things on the planet.” We see a need to better explain the open source rules for the Knight News Challenge, and our rationale for developing them. A couple of recent Twitter threads make it clear that there are outstanding questions about our policies.

At Knight Foundation, we are fans of open source software. Our mission as a foundation is to inform and engage communities. We want the tools and platforms that we fund to be widely used. We believe projects built using open source code are more likely to spread, and be built upon, than those that rely upon proprietary software. Panda and Overview , two projects supported through the 2011 News Challenge, are now open for developers to work on.  Earlier this month, our collaboration with Mozilla Foundation relaunched as OpenNews, and “is about helping journalism thrive on the open Web.” All told, we’ve provided support to some 76 open source projects since the News Challenge launched in 2007.

One criteria we use when selecting Knight News Challenge winners is potential social impact. We think that the use of open source code is a key part of achieving that impact. However, as my colleague Jose Zamora recently wrote (and as the head in the wall points out partway through this video), we will also accept proposals that use other licenses or proprietary code. To be clear: we prefer projects that are open source. But if you or your company have a rationale for a non-open source project, we will consider it.

Each year, we receive questions, and criticism, about our use of the General Public License. This year, some have again argued that we have chosen the wrong open source license. For now, GPL is the standard license we’ve selected to offer to our grantees.  We are also open to consider other licenses on a case-by-case basis.

We have adopted GPL as a default out of a desire to provide the strongest “copyleft” provisions possible. Our view is that other, more permissible licenses, such as BSD or MIT, may be converted to proprietary use and do not require the disclosure of code modifications. As a private foundation, our first objective is the public benefit. As such, we treat the code we help to develop as basic research which should be open and sharable.

However, as in prior years, we consider requests for use of an alternative licenses. (Such requests must be approved prior to the finalization of a grant.) Here are the types of questions we ask you to think about when proposing a license other than the GPL:

  • Is a different license essential to the success of the project?
  • How will the license impact the project’s objectives and sustainability?
  • What IP would be produced if there were a change in license?
  • What does an alternative license allow you to do that a GPL does not?

We have more flexibility in offering alternative licenses with non-profits, as they must abide by organizational by-laws that mandate the use of assets for the public good.  

As Jose described in his post, in addition to grants, we also offer low interest loans called Program Related Investments and Mission Related Investments, through the Knight Enterprise Fund, that do not have specific licensing requirements at all.

Ultimately, we value good ideas (preferably open source), not the license. Over time, the licenses we use may change, but our fundamental belief that open source leads to better projects and stronger communities, will not.  

I hope this post helps clarify some of the questions that have come up. Michael Maness and I will be doing a Google Hangout at 1 p.m. Wednesday -- please check in if you want to talk about this, or any other aspect of the News Challenge. And, as ever, you can find us at or @knightfdn.

By John Bracken, director/Journalism and Media Innovation at Knight Foundation

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