What Does a License Do? Opening up to CC-BY and Ruminating over Share-Alike

Earlier this summer, Jill brought up a question about one component of this blog to the admins of this site: she was wondering about the Creative Commons license we use to share (and provide guidelines for the use of) our work that gets posted here. If you’re reading this on our site, you’ll see over on the lower right that the license in question is the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike (CC-BY-SA) license. Jill was wondering if we wanted to migrate to what she sees as a less restrictive license, Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY), which she feels is becoming the industry standard for open access coalitions and advocates.

Both the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) and the Wellcome Trust prefer CC-BY as the least restrictive license for publishing openly (while still requiring attribution, which would not be necessary under the most open license such as CC-0, or the public domain).

With those recommendations to consider, we went back and forth via email, talking about what would this change would mean. How could/would we implement a license change? (i.e. we have a license for this whole site, not individual posts. If the license ia altered, how does that affect each blog post–even the ones written before we decided on CC-BY?) What does a change in license mean for the ways that our work could be used? Do we have any idea of how people have been using our content, and what the real ramifications would be upon use and users?

I remember arguing for CC-BY-SA at the time we started this blog, probably due to conversations I’d been thinking about surrounding the impact of Noncommercial Creative Commons licenses. I agree with the OASPA that Noncommercial (NC) licenses are intensely restrictive and confusing:

Why is CC-BY preferable to CC-BY-NC?

There are two key problems with a no commercial use restriction. The first is that the definition of what constitutes commercial use is necessarily fuzzy, and so any license which restricts commercial use creates a haze of doubt around various uses that may or may not be at risk of being considered commercial, and in doing so acts as a general discouragement to reuse (http://www.samuelabram.com/noncommercial). 

See also: NC considered harmful; Why Full Open Access Matters.

But even ignoring the Noncommercial aspects, given the choice between CC-BY and CC-BY-SA, there hasn’t been a clear way to decide how we should license this site. Even as three OA-activist librarians who have a tremendous amount of interest in scholarly communication issues, we’ve struggled over the full implication of what it means to use a Share-Alike license.

I personally cling to the SA portions of CC licenses because of conversations about software and copyleft issues, and thinking about the GNU Public License (GPL) as the penultimate license. And yet even the staunchest free software techies have inconsistencies when it comes to licensing works beyond software.

I have been thinking a lot lately about scholarly and creative works and their relationship to licensing; and how a license speaks to the relationships that we imagine others might have with our work after we publish it, or after we decide it’s complete in some sense. (And this also assumes, regardless of the law, that we should even begin to think that we could have any control over our work after it leaves our hands…)

On this blog, as OA supporters, we want our work to be read and used and remixed and adapted and we would like to have very little say in any limitations of what other people would do with the work after we’ve shared it.

At the same time I know that once we’re talking about licenses, we’ve entered a legal landscape that isn’t really a realm that we (as non-lawyers) live within or know how to navigate; i.e. we’re not ultimately interested in following up on every use and re-use of our work and making sure that folks stick to the parameters of whatever license we choose. Thus, if we’re not willing to use the license in litigation (i.e. I doubt that we would sue anyone over a violation of our license–and perhaps particularly just the SA portion), then what does a license really do? Is it a legal aid after the fact that could be wielded in a lawsuit, or a set of guidelines that hopefully makes our preferences known before anyone shares, uses or adapts the work?

Jill had been thinking about this issue because she wanted to write a post advocating for the use of CC-BY and wondered how that might look on a blog that uses CC-BY-SA. What do you all think? How do you choose a license for your work? How does licensing affect ongoing projects such as this blog, which might change over time? And can we advocate for one license while employing another? Or should we change the whole blog to better suit what we see coming up ahead?

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About Alycia Sellie

Alycia Sellie is the Associate Librarian for Collections at the Graduate Center Library.
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