Tutorial 19d: Open Access definitions and clarifications, part 4: licences

November 21, 2012

Thanks for sticking with this series. In part 1, we looked at what open access means, and what terms to use in describing it. In part 2, we considered the Gold and Green roads to open access. In part 3, we touched on zero-cost Gold OA, sometimes known as “Platinum”. This time, we’re going to get down the nitty gritty of the actual licences that govern what you can do with a paper that you’ve downloaded.

As usual in this series, I will try to keep my opinions and preferences out of it, and limit myself to uncontroversial statements. So for example, I will not express a preference for one Creative Commons licence over another, even though I do have a preference.

No licence

Unfortunately, this is still very common. Lots of journals that make their articles freely available to read online say nothing about what you are and are not allowed to do with them. PalArch’s journal of vertebrate palaeontology is one of these — I have no idea, for example, whether I am allowed to print a copy of an article for myself; or, if I am, then whether I can give it to a friend; or if I can print three copies for three friends, or fifty copies for a group of students. [Note added 15 November 2013: I'm pleased to say that PalArch has now fixed this, and starting from our own article there, they use CC By.]

Not much better is the sort of vague statement given by Palaeontologia Electronica:

All articles appearing in Palaeontologia Electronica (PE) are available free of charge from the World Wide Web through the Palaeontologia Electronica Site. Copyrights for technical articles (text and graphics) are assigned to Palaeontologia Electronica Sponsors where appropriate … If you would like to distribute copies of materials published by Palaeontologia Electronica we encourage you to obtain the requisite permissions from the copyright holders.

The implication here is that I can print a copy for myself but not for my friend, but it’s not at all explicit. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the issue of whether there’s any reason for such a condition, and limit our questions to what the conditions are, not what they should be.)

So the first thing to say about open-access licences is: please have a licence. Even if it’s a horrible, restrictive licence, please at least be clear about it. Merely shoving PDFs up on the web and walking away is asking for misunderstanding.

Custom licences

One step up from no licence at all is a custom licence, written for a particular journal or publisher. One such is the set of terms used by Elsevier for their “sponsored articles”. (Credit to Elsevier for making these fairly easy to find now — it was not always the case!)

Leaving aside how restrictive these terms are, let’s at least give credit where it’s due, and acknowledge that they are explicit. The problem is, it’s a lot to read and understand. Elsevier’s terms are actually fairly short and sweet as these things go: 300-odd words. But it’s not unusual for these things to be multi-page monsters. Who can read and understand the implications of such things? If only there were a small set of simple, well-defined standard licences, so that content providers could just pick the one they wanted and everyone would know what it meant.

Creative Commons licences

… and that is the purpose of Creative Commons. There are about seven different Creative Commons licences, depending on how you count them, but they are made up from a small number of easy-to-understand building blocks. Since each such block has a two-letter name, it’s easy to name a specific Creative Commons licence such as BY-NC-SA. (The full abbreviations of the licences begin with “CC”.)

CC BY is the basic CC licence. It says that you are allowed to do anything at all with the content of the article provided only that you credit the author. It’s the licence used by the biggest and most influential open-access publishers (PLOS, BMC, Hindawi) precisely because it allows the licenced work to have the most value. Wikipedia uses it for the same reason (as indeed does this blog). When dealing with a CC BY article, you can reuse passages of it in your own work, copy its illustrations into a Wikipedia article, hand out copies to classes you teach, extract numeric data and add it to your database, and so on.

You can augment — or, rather, restrict — the CC BY terms by adding other clauses:

The NC clause means “non-commercial”, and restricts downstream use of the work to non-commercial contexts — although exactly what that means is vague and difficult to define. The purpose of this clause is to ensure that if anyone makes money from the work, the author gets a slice. (We’ll discuss this more in a future post.)

The ND clause means “no derivatives”: you’re allowed to make copies of the entire article, but not to “remix” it: you can’t make translations, extract passages, adapt it into a blog post, etc. The idea of this clause is to protect authorial integrity.

By contrast, SA means “share alike”: you are allowed to make derivatives, but only on the condition that you release them under the same licence. The idea here is to make openness viral, to ensure that it’s passed on to other projects.

The ND and SA clauses are two alternatives: you can’t have both together, that would be a contradiction.

Finally, there’s CC0. This is not exactly a licence, but a formal declaration that the work is placed in the public domain, that copyright is waived, and that can you do whatever you like with it, subject to no conditions at all, not even attribution. (Some other classes of work are also in the public domain, notably anything produced by US Federal employees, including those who work for the BLM.)

These various CC licensing options can be stacked to make the following licences: CC BY, CC BY-NC, CC BY-ND, CC BY-SA, CC BY-NC-ND and CC BY-NC-SA. And CC0 makes seven.

SIDEBAR: If you’re familiar with the major open-source software licences, you’ll recognise CC BY as being similar to the Apache and BSD licences; and CC BY-SA as similar to the GNU General Public Licence (GPL). There are no open-source software equivalents of CC licences with the NC or ND clauses, as these would violate the open-source definition. CC0 is of course equivalent to public domain software.

Note that, as with any other licence, you have the option of routing around CC licences by negotiating with the copyright holder — which is often, though not always, the author. If for some reason you particularly wanted to reproduce an SV-POW! article and not credit me as the author, then this blog’s CC BY licence doesn’t give you permission to do that — but you can contact me and ask whether I’ll allow it anyway. More realistically, if you wanted to use CC BY-NC material in your business’s training materials, you might be able to negotiate its use, for a fee.

Other licences

No doubt there are other licences out there other than the CC ones and the ones that various publishers make up for themselves. (In the software world there are lots of these, to no-one’s benefit.) But I can’t think of any examples. Can anyone?

Varying licences

One last nasty problem needs to be mentioned. While journals tend to at least be consistent in the terms under which they make articles available, repositories often are not. For example, articles in arXiv are provided under four different conditions: CC BY, CC BY-NC-SA, public domain, and an underspecified “licence to distribute“. Worse still, I can’t see that their pages even specify which licence a given article uses.

This makes it harder, in general, to safely reuse content from repositories. It’s one reason why some people favour Gold OA over Green OA.

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7 Responses to “Tutorial 19d: Open Access definitions and clarifications, part 4: licences”


  1. Since this is an intro to licenses you might want to mention that picking a CC licence does not mean that you give up copyright. In my experience, many people new to licences do not realize this.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Excellent point, Jan. Rather than modify this just-posted article, I might do a (small) separate part 5 on copyright transfer and retention.


  3. [...] commercial use or systemic distribution, you must still request permission”. This is a non-commercial clause, making Elsevier’s terms roughly congruent with the CC BY-NC licence — whereas RCUK [...]


  4. [...] the previous section, we discussed the various licences that can be used for open-access articles. But that may have [...]


  5. [...] that any article published with a Creative Commons licence — even the most restrictive of those licences — is safe from this kind of [...]


  6. [...] Mike Taylor’s excellent posts over at SVPOW for [...]


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