The Participatory Culture Foundation (PCF) began as a nonprofit in 2006 with a focus on creating open source software to ensure that emerging video technologies were accessible to all. Today, we are still very much a mission-focused nonprofit; however, since getting our start, we have witnessed major shifts in the computing landscape that have led us to an important decision:

In order to ensure that PCF continues to be well-positioned to pursue its mission, we are announcing the closure of Amara’s source code.

PCF and AMARA MISSION

Closing Amara’s source code will help to ensure PCF maximizes its focus on:

  • Making video more accessible by captioning for deaf or hard of hearing viewers.
  • Bridging language barriers with subtitles and translations.
  • Ensuring that the growing volume of socially-enriching, helpful, and/or educational video content available today is accessible to all.
  • Collaborating with individuals and communities to make all of the above happen!

Our efforts at PCF are supported heavily by earned-revenue from sustainability initiatives that are based on the Amara technology. Funds generated by these programs enable us to collaborate with fellow mission-driven organizations, such as TED, Wikitongues, California Academy of Sciences, and others who desire to make socially-enriching content more accessible globally. These funds also help us to develop tools such as those used by grassroots communities that are working to revitalize and sustain their languages (for example, Stoney Nakoda).

For an organization like PCF, which relies on revenue generated from sustainability initiatives to fund social impact work, we believe the risk to these initiatives outweighs the potential or perceived public benefit from maintaining open code. Releasing software as open source unfortunately does not provide protection against well-funded technology firms that are driven by profit.

Beyond the threat of a larger corporation directly undermining our sustainability efforts, we also have a vested interest in ensuring that those working on digital platforms, such as Amara On Demand, are treated equitably. We believe that everyone in the digital economy should have a voice. Our efforts in this arena have been described in the book, Ghost Work, which highlights experiences of Amara On Demand linguists. Limiting access to the Amara source code gives us greater control over who deploys the software and could someday also include requirements for engaging a workforce with the technology.

These factors drove our decision to make the Amara source code private. We believe this is the right move for the organization, and Amara, as well as the millions of people across the globe that benefit from our work.

Closing Amara’s source code will help to ensure PCF can support efforts to:

  • Offer the collaborative Amara Editor freely and publicly.
  • Enable individuals and communities to make socially-enriching video content universally and natively accessible to all. 
  • Continue to model a more positive path for the future of work.
  • Better support grassroots efforts for rare and endangered language revitalization.
  • Develop new impact initiatives that enable people to positively impact the information environment that surrounds us all.

THE CONTEXT OF OUR DECISION

The current politics and market dynamics of the technology sector make developing and sustaining open source cloud-based applications a risky proposition for a small nonprofit like PCF. Here is why:

A changing landscape

In 2006, when PCF first started, we were enthusiastic about the concept of free and open source software, with the idea that it could greatly empower individuals who ran it. Our initial offering, Miro, was desktop software that we released as open source. We continued to release code that we developed as open source. However, during the course of the past 14 years, a major shift occurred in the computing landscape. Cloud computing, in other words, running software in remote data centers on behalf of users, overtook desktop software as the dominant paradigm. Some of the biggest platforms in the world, such as Google, YouTube, and Facebook are deployed in the cloud, as are many smaller platforms, like Amara.

This shift in computing, from desktop to cloud, has changed what open source means in terms of individual empowerment. Applications run in the cloud are no longer under a specific individual’s control. Instead, applications are run on behalf of an user and data is mostly processed and stored out of the users’ hands, remotely. This shift has, in many ways, upended the original promise of free and open source software of empowering the individual user. The freedoms and controls that were once assumed to be granted through open source, within the desktop computing environment, no longer hold true in a cloud-based world.

Competitive risks

Open source technologies are developed at great cost (and/or time) by individuals, product teams, and communities. Furthermore, developing rich user experiences requires a variety of specialized skills including: UX and UI design, quality assurance, engineering, project and product management, as well as others. At the same time, the competitive ecosystem that has grown up around open source software has become more and more contested. Sharing code can be risky when there are potentially well-funded organizations that may be better positioned to deploy technology commercially. Without the proper market position and resources, a smaller organization that relies on revenue from software they build can be outmaneuvered or overpowered with the very technology they created (assuming their code is open source). This is not only a threat to smaller organizations, but has also become a bigger debate that much larger companies are also hashing out.

For venture-funded or publicly traded firms, the open source approach can be a calculated risk that makes business sense. But for less-capitalized organizations or nonprofits, like PCF, who lack significant market power, making software open source puts other more well-resourced players in position to leverage the technology in ways that may undermine the sustainability and/or the values of the original developer.

Putting our mission first

With these shifts in the computing landscape, PCF has not seen individuals or communities as the primary beneficiary of releasing Amara code as open source. Instead, we have unfortunately had firsthand experience with a venture-funded organization deploying code we created and using it in ways that we did not think aligned well with our values.

For these reasons, we have made the proactive decision to move Amara’s code into a private repository. We believe this change will allow us to focus on what matters most: Supporting the promotion of credible and life enriching content by making it more accessible AND engaging people to positively impact the information environment that now surrounds all of us.

As we undertake this shift in 2020, we are aware that the computing landscape will continue to change and thus we remain open to newer and better strategies for making source code available in the long-term. Future strategies might include data trusts and/or new licenses that better align with our sustainability initiatives and mission.

We appreciate your support and look forward to building a more accessible, inclusive, and participatory culture! Please reach out to me directly, at dean@pculture.org, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.

Dean Jansen
Executive Director & CEO
Participatory Culture Foundation

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Dean is PCF's Executive Director, and Chief Executive Officer.

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