One argument in favour of CC BY

December 14, 2012

[Originally written as a comment on Martin Coward’s blog, but I thought the point was worth making as its own post.]

Here’s my take on the widely used Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC BY) in contrast to more restrictive CC licences such as the Non-Commercial variant (CC BY-NC).

It may be true, as Martin suggests, that CC BY-NC is better for the author than CC BY. But authors are part of a community, and it’s unquestionably better for the broader community that CC BY be used. It’s better for society that commercial applications of the author’s research be allowed and encouraged.


So long as researchers are funded by that broader community, it’s fair that funders should be able to mandate the more permissive licence, which is better for society. If we kick back against that — if we say it’s not enough to be paid to do research, we also want a slice of the commercial uses of our work — we only perpetuate society’s ivory-tower stereotype of academics who think the world owes them a living.

So while there is certainly an argument to be made that CC BY is also better for the researcher, I think that whether that’s true or not, simple justice requires that no additional restrictions be placed on such work.

6 Responses to “One argument in favour of CC BY”

  1. Comment that I also left on Martin’s post:

    Hi Martin. Thanks for laying these concerns out so nicely.

    First on the plagiarism thing and how attribution is done. The CC deed (for all the licenses) makes it clear that the author gets to say how they want to be attributed. Also (in answer to some other concerns) they have a right to tell a downstream user that they *do not* wish to be attributed. On the concerns about misuse I’d argue that any CC license actually offers much more protection than existing arrangements (publishers are free to re-publishing out of context elements, charge for it, even remove your name under some agreements) and the different CC licenses don’t make much difference to these protections.

    Actually plagiarism is easier to detect in a completely CC BY world. It would be easy to build a service that checked new works against the whole massive database and look for copied fragments. Such a service would cost money to run so it would need some sort of resourcing, perhaps as paid-for service. Which your NC license would actually mitigate against – for such a service to have to negotiate specific terms of access for every publisher to include content in their corpus would actually increase the costs massively (I’d guess by orders of magnitude). So if you want to prevent plagiarism, the best way is to make the text freely available.

    I think there are two broader arguments for attribution over NC licensing. The first is, you make the point about money accruing to the author. I would argue that, at least where public funding has been used, its reasonable to expect its recipient to maximise overall benefits for the public, both economic and other, rather than personal benefits. If work is self funded then the situation is clearly different – but self funding for me would also mean paying your own salary. So I’ve always argued that the funder has a right to dictate terms of dissemination, so as to maximise their ability to perform their mission. As an aside it follows that if the mission of the funder is to make the author rich that’s very different from a public funder seeking to maximise, amongst other things, overall economic activity, public good, cultural enrichment, impact on policy etc etc etc.

    But even for the self funded researcher I’d argue there are benefits from allowing commercial downstream use. Bottom line, what’s worse, someone making some money from your work, or no-one seeing at all and you making none. It’s a very rare case anyone makes any money off a research work so for me its more important that it reaches people. People spreading the work, as long as its linked back to you is a benefit, not a downside. Some of that spread can benefit from commercial involvement. And by taking an NC position you exclude lots of potential uses, teaching – where a fee is paid, fundraising, use by a policy think tank that charges for reports etc etc. And these arguments are stronger for the publicly funded researcher.

    The reason publishers are arguing for NC rights is to as ensure that they have exclusive rights over commercial exploitation. With the big publishers I’d say from a community perspective this is just a bad thing – we don’t want to hand over exclusive commercial rights. For smaller publishers and societies I can understand that cost recovery and supporting community service is a concern and these are more community based organisations. But I think we need to look closely at the kinds of uses and impact that we lose and the amount of money that can be recovered as well as the question of our service to the wider community. We could do with some better numbers on that.

  2. well, yes – and no! it depends on what we are talking about. A paper? CC-BY is fine. A paper with supplements in the form of 3D files of a rare fossil? Mabye rather not….

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Heinrich, I think that the moral argument for CC BYing the 3d files are different from the pragmatic ones. Does the museum in your case want to hold on the commercial rights to the models? Yes, it does, and it’s easy to see why it wants that. But does it have the moral right? If the museum is publicly funded, and acquired the fossil with public money, and paid for the scanning and modelling with public money, then really I’m not sure I see why it has the right with withhold the result from the public. Open to being persuaded, though.

    ipalchemist, I have never signed anything to do with copyright at submission time. Many journals do as you to state that the work has not been published elsewhere. But that is not at all the same thing as stating that you hold the copyright — if it was, then US Federal employees would not be able to sign.

    Journals always have a choice over what material to accept. They would be perfectly within their rights to tell US Federal employees, “Sorry, we won’t publish you work since we require copyright”. I’ve not heard of journals that have that policy, but there’s no reason they couldn’t.

  4. Jumping to conclusions, Mike.
    I’m not sure I see why it has the right with withhold the result from the public
    Who says that?
    Withholding the ability to sell copies and make private dough based on publicly funded work – yes.
    Withholding the ability to do research without notifying the holding institution – which paid for digitizing and pays for curation – yes.
    Withholding the ability to scoop research by the person who did the digitizing – yes.

    Obviously, such data should be made available for any reasonable purpose, but not so some guy on the other end of the world can get rich selling RP casts!

  5. hgmorrison Says:

    Copyright does not cover ideas, just their expression. Free access to read works with otherwise All Rights Reserved is sufficient to get ideas from out to the public.

  6. hgmorrison Says:

    CC-BY has a significant and dangerous loophole for open access. There is no obligation for the licensor to make the work freely available (none of the CC licenses are specific to works that are free of charge), or to keep the CC-BY version available.

    To illustrate the danger: I understand that Springer, owner of BioMedCentral, is up for sale. There is nothing in BMC’s CC licenses that would prevent a new owner from switching to toll access with all rights reserved.

    If all the works in PubMedCentral were CC-BY licensed, then any commercial entity would be free to copy the whole thing. Then all they need to do is lobby to remove funding for PMC on the grounds that the government should not compete with the private sector, and we could easily have catastrophic loss of OA.

    Noncommercial limits the ability of commercial interests to exploit scholarly works for their own private advantage. This serves society better than asking all scholars to grant commercial rights on a blanket basis to anyone, anywhere.

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