Whose to Use? And Use As They Choose?

Authors of traditional textbooks and articles published in traditional scholarly journals generally have to sign over their copyright to the publisher. Not so for authors who publish with open access publishers — they retain the right to copy, distribute, and re-use their works. (Unimpressed by those seemingly basic rights? Remember that when authors transfer their copyright to publishers, they sometimes lose all rights to their work. After the transfer, they sometimes have no more rights to their work than you or I do.)

Of course, if all rights to a work were held only by the author, others could not copy, share, or reuse the work. In other words, by definition, it couldn’t be truly open access. So, we want authors to retain their rights, but we also need them to grant some rights to others. And not just specific other people or companies — to everyone, to all potential users.

And that’s why the open access community loves Creative Commons (CC) licenses: They leave copyright with the creator but also grant some rights to others. Creative Commons licenses are not the only way to grant rights to a work, but they make it easy for creators to communicate which rights they do and don’t give to others, and they’ve emerged as the standard licensing tool for open access materials.

Spectrum between traditional copyright and public domainThere are six Creative Commons licenses on the spectrum between traditional copyright and the public domain. They differ in their requirements regarding commercial uses and derivative works, and there are fascinating things to say about all of them. But I’m going to limit this post to two similar licenses that differ in one important respect: CC BY (Attribution) and CC BY-SA (Attribution-ShareAlike):

  • The CC BY license says that people can do whatever they want with the work — copy it, print it, distribute it, expand it, remix it, post it on commercial websites, even sell it — provided that the creator is properly attributed.
  • The CC BY-SA license is very similar but differs in one key way: It says that people can do whatever they want with the work provided that (1) the creator is properly attributed and (2) any resulting works are released with the same license. Because CC BY-SA requires that derivative works are also CC BY-SA, it is a “viral” license.

Which is better, CC BY or CC BY-SA? Major players in the open access arena have strong and opposing opinions.

Wikipedia uses CC BY-SA, explaining that [bold is mine]:

To grow the commons of free knowledge and free culture, all users contributing to the Projects are required to grant broad permissions to the general public to re-distribute and re-use their contributions freely, so long as that use is properly attributed and the same freedom to re-use and re-distribute is granted to any derivative works. In keeping with our goal of providing free information to the widest possible audience, we require that when necessary all submitted content be licensed so that it is freely reusable by anyone who cares to access it.

The Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), on the other hand, endorses CC BY, going so far as to disallow CC BY-SA among its members [bold mine]:

To fully realise that potential of open access to research literature, barriers to reuse need to be removed. . . .

The most liberal Creative Commons license is CC-BY, which allows for unrestricted reuse of content, subject only to the requirement that the source work is appropriately attributed. Other Creative Commons licenses allow for three possible restrictions to be imposed. . . . But the emerging consensus on the adoption of CC-BY reflects the fact that any of these restrictions needlessly limits the possible reuse of published research.

. . . while [Share-Alike] licenses can be extremely helpful in building up a collection of content, they also have downsides in terms of the limitations they place on reuse. For example, material distributed within a Share-Alike article could only be combined and redistributed with other share-alike content. In contrast, CC-BY content can be combined with any content, and redistributed according to the terms of that other content, as long as CC-BY’s own attribution requirement is respected. This makes CC-BY something like a Universal Donor blood-type in that it has maximal compatibility.

. . . OASPA includes, and will currently still admit, members who use the NC restriction (but not the SA or ND restrictions).

Let’s take a closer look at the question of which license is better:

  • Which is better for readers? For those who just read/consume a work (and those who download, print, and share it), there’s no difference between the two licenses.
  • Which is better for those who want to reuse/remix a work? It depends. CC BY is less restrictive, making reuse easier. But CC BY-SA ensures the openness and reusability of derivative works, and that stipulation arguably leads to reuses/remixes that are inherently better than if they weren’t open.
  • Which is better for authors? It depends on the author’s priorities. CC BY facilitates reuse and broad impact, but some creators of open works want works derived from their works to be open as well.
  • Which is better for openness? As we saw in the arguments from Wikipedia and OASPA, It depends on how you look at it. CC BY makes a given work more open, more reusable. But CC BY-SA fosters openness and builds the universe of open access materials. However, the share-alike stipulation might deter some potential reusers and prevent some reuses from ever happening. How should we think about a license that promotes openness in derivative works but likely prevents some derivative works from ever being made? It’s hard to say!
  • Which do I personally think is better? Philosophically, I’m with Wikipedia and CC BY-SA. I love the idea of a snowball effect of openness. But in practice, I think OASPA has it right: For open access works to have the most impact and do the most good, we need to minimize barriers to reuse. And, when it comes down to it, I’m a practical person. So I (with somewhat conflicted feelings) side with CC BY.
  • But you certainly don’t have to take my word for it! My smart and thoughtful colleague Alycia Sellie is somewhat more drawn to CC BY-SA. See her grapple with CC BY vs. CC BY-SA in a post from last summer.

One last note: Yes, I prefer some CC licenses to others. But I embrace all of them as improvements on traditional copyright for scholarly communication and educational publishing!

(This post was derived from a presentation I gave at WikiConference USA on May 31: Whose to Use? And Use As They Choose? Creative Commons Licenses in Wikipedia and Scholarly Publishing. A slightly different version of this post also appeared on the Open Educational Resources @ CUNY blog.)

Avatar of Jill Cirasella

About Jill Cirasella

Jill Cirasella is the Associate Librarian for Public Services and Scholarly Communication at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
This entry was posted in Licensing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.