CC-What? Part 2: No SA (#h817open, Activity 9)

In the previous post I discussed why I don’t use a CC-BY-NC license for my blog, and won’t do so for any open educational resources I create. In this one I do the same for CC-BY-SA.

Share alike

Some of the blogs connected to the OU Open Education course have opted for a share alike clause for their CC licenses–see, e.g., this post by Inger-Marie Christensen, this one by Guy Cowley, and this one by Gitte Bailey Hass. These express a desire to allow continued sharing of the work into the future, so that someone else couldn’t, for example, put an NC or ND clause onto the work later (well, they could, but, you know…).

The point of using a CC-BY-SA license seems to be to keep things free in the sense of “libre”: the work can continue to be not only reused, but also revised, remixed, redistributed (the four R’s, given by David Wiley). The idea behind CC-BY-SA is similar to the idea of “copyleft,” which is explained on the GNU site in terms of software: “Copyleft says that anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along the freedom to further copy and change it. Copyleft guarantees that every user has freedom.”

Charging money

Now, initially one might think that this means the work would have to remain free (in the sense of gratis) in perpetuity; after all, if one put a CC-BY-SA license on a work, then any changes and redistribution would have to also have a CC-BY-SA license, so it would be available for free (no cost), right? Not necessarily–one can still charge money for something with a CC-BY-SA license. What is not allowed is restricting others’ ability to use and revise and remix and redistribute the work themselves. The legal code of the CC-BY-SA license says: “You may not offer or impose any terms on the Work that restrict the terms of this License or the ability of the recipient of the Work to exercise the rights granted to that recipient under the terms of the License.”

Whether or not you can charge money for such a work is a separate issue. It’s related, of course, in that making money is easier if you can stop others from distributing a work as well, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to charge for it. One way this might work is with software: someone could create a new program based on some code that has a copyleft license, and the new code has to also have a copyleft license. But the program could still be sold, even though the code is openly available for anyone to use, change, redistribute. But there are many people who can’t do anything with the code, can’t figure out how to install the program on their machines, etc., so they might be willing to pay for the software. The GNU site has a good article on how copyleft doesn’t prohibit making money from software: “Selling Free Software.”

Commercial enclosure

Some argue that one can use SA to prevent the sort of commercial enclosure discussed in my previous post, and that it would be a better tool for doing so than NC. For example, a booklet arguing against CC-BY-NC by Paul Klimpel explains (on pp. 12-13) that any work that uses something licensed CC-BY-SA, even when added to or mixed with things not so licensed, has to be released, as a whole, with a CC-BY-SA license as well–“and that is one thing most companies, especially larger ones, are not willing to do,” Klimpel’s translated text reads.

Charles Lowe explains further in Considerations for Creative Commons Licensing of Open Educational Resources: The Value of Copyleft:

… if I produce a derivative work of a Share Alike licensed open textbook on my own, one that is significantly enhanced over previous versions, I can sell it, even though I must license it as Share Alike. As a result of the license, any person who buys it—for whatever price I set—can post it to the Internet and give it away for free. From that point on, the potential market value for selling the book has disappeared.

“Pallas cat,” cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by suvodeb

So perhaps CC-BY-SA would cover the concerns about commercial enclosure that Stephen Downes raises (see my previous blog post), and I share, though about which I am not worried for my own work? Downes would not agree; he argues here and here that charging money to access a work means it is no longer free, and here he states that copyleft licenses like CC-BY-SA embody a contradiction: 

They are saying “‘you shall not block anyone from using this content’ and ‘you may block some people from using this content.'” [by charging money for it]

Downes then goes on to reiterate the argument that even if copyleft licenses supposedly leave the free (as in gratis) versions available, it doesn’t end up working that way because the free versions will be enclosed.

What will actually happen is an empirical matter that I don’t have the facts to try to predict, and it’s quite complicated, as this post by Downes and this reply by Wiley suggest. And, as I’m ultimately rejecting both NC and SA, I won’t try to go further into this issue here.

Sharing in perpetuity

There is also a deeper, philosophical argument that can be advanced in support of copyleft principles. J.M. Pedersen argues here that copyleft licenses allow for “reciprocity in perpetuity,” in the sense that they allow one to take resources from a “commons” but also require that anything new done to them be returned back to that commons for anyone else to use.

The GPL [GNU General Public License–a copyleft license] ensures that everyone is able to access the Free Software commons, and also that everyone will act in ways that ensure its continuity (and in fact, growth) into the future. Reciprocity in perpetuity refers to an attitude of responsibility and responsiveness that is necessary in order for the commons to remain perpetually there.

Pedersen also explains that copyleft therefore creates a kind of community of people who agree to reciprocally share their work. This community is, in principle, open to anyone, but of course they have to be willing to engage in this kind of reciprocity: enjoying freedoms to use, to redistribute, and to improve works only if one is willing to allow others to do the same with anything one creates on the basis of them.

This idea of “reciprocity in perpetuity” expresses the desire that free works (in the sense of libre) remain free far into the future. CC-BY and CC0, for example, couldn’t guarantee that–they allow others to use the works in any way they wish, including revising them extensively and releasing the new works under copyright.

I respect this desire, and efforts to keep things libre into the future. It seems that in regards to CC-BY vs. CC-BY-SA, the choice comes down to giving others complete freedom to do what they want with your work vs. ensuring that more people, down the road, have freedom to use, revise, remix, and redistribute your work. There is one restriction that SA imposes that BY alone does not: one has to release whatever one creates from the SA-licensed work under an SA-type license as well. That’s not too much to ask for continued freedom of persons to use the material into the future, right? After all, one could say that the only restriction SA provides is restriction against further restrictions, as Rob Myers points out in this succinct post: “it does not stop you doing anything, it only stops you stopping others.”

But there are costs with SA, of course, as with any choice of license. And looking at those shows that SA does stop others doing some things.


The most direct cost, though some might not think of it as such, is that one’s work is not available for revision, remixing and redistribution by those who do not want to use a CC-BY-SA license. I, for example, don’t even look at any works that are licensed as SA when I am looking for images for my blog, and I am not likely to for OER either, since I plan to use CC-BY for my OER as well. I just completely skip over things with NC or SA licenses (or ND, even though I could use ND images since I use them whole…I just go straight for the CC-BY stuff because it’s the safest).

David Wiley has explained the license compatibility issue arising from SA here, as has Leigh Blackall, here. The issue is that material licensed with SA (or another copyleft license) often cannot be combined with other material that also has a type of SA license into a remix (e.g., one can’t combine material with a CC-BY-SA license with material that has a CC-BY-NC-SA license, because both require that the remix would have to be released under a compatible license as each one). See this chart on the Wikieducator site, which explains license compatibility quite clearly.

Further, of course, the SA designation restricts the sort of license that can be put on the remix, so those who do not wish to use an SA license will simply not use such materials. Which means that, again, releasing one’s work under an SA-type license restricts the number of uses it can be put to, and therefore likely the number of people using it.

Now, this may not matter to some; they may rather want to enter into the reciprocity community Pedersen discusses (as noted above) and only release their work to others who will also share it with others in the same way. But in so doing they are restricting their work to fewer uses (which they may not care about). By using CC-BY (or especially if I choose to move to CC0), my work can be used by more people, which is something I do care about. I put it out there to be used, if anyone finds it of use.

I recognize that this could mean it may be used by more people initially, but then closed off. And that does still bug me–which is why, as noted in my previous post, I’d still like to have some other kind of instrument that would allow for commercial use but not total commercial (or other) enclosure, such that no free versions can be had. This may be impossible, but that’s what I’d like. But again, that ultimately seems unlikely for the stuff I do.

As with most things, the choice between CC-BY and CC-BY-SA comes down to which costs one is most willing to bear. I find SA much less problematic than NC, after all this research, and I very much understand the desire to try to keep works libre in perpetuity through the use of SA.

But ultimately, I think of it this way: I give away my work to be used by others, as many others as want to, and they create something new with it (and maybe with other stuff too). Then it’s no longer just mine; I’m not willing to require that they share it with others in a certain way. My stuff is still available for others to use as they wish; whatever new stuff is created may or may not be, for various reasons that I can’t even imagine at the moment. 

I come back to the idea of giving my stuff away as a gift. Here, you can have it, and that means you can do what you will with it. Maybe you can do wonderful things I couldn’t imagine, and that wouldn’t be possible if I put more restrictions on it. Or maybe you’ll try to enclose it and not allow others to use it. But since I think the latter is less likely with my work than the former, I’m going with CC-BY.

Or possibly CC0.



  1. Christina: Thank you for thinking through all of this so carefully. I can see why you described this on Twitter as “nearly sucking out (your) soul.” I’m going to need to read it all again before I can make any intelligent response. I like the “gifting” mentality you express, and it reminds me of a fascinating book on this topic by cultural essayist Lewis Hyde ( published in 1983 as The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property and republished in 2007 as The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World)–for a podcast interview with Lewis, see ). Here’s Hyde describing the activity of “the gift” in his first chapter: ” As it is passed along, the gift may be given back to the original donor, but this is not essential. In fact, it is better if the gift is not returned but is given instead to some new, third party. The only essential is this: the gift must always move. There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark a boundary or resist momentum, but the gift keeps going.”
    I think we could do well to think more about what that call to continuous movement might mean. Thank you for getting me thinking more deeply about these questions.

  2. I had sent off my previous message before finishing my browsing about what Lewis Hyde has been up to, and discovered that he has a 2010 book titled Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership. He says that this book was inspired by his anger at the congressional extension of copyright–and so it fits in well with the concerns you raise here about copyright and creative commons. I haven’t read the book yet, but plan to.

    1. Hi Rosemary:

      Yes, these posts really drained me because the issues turned out to be more complex than I realized at first, and I wanted to make sure I got as many of the good arguments as possible in here, and addressed. I haven’t heard of Hyde before, but I do like the idea of the gift keeping moving–at least in this case of something that is given away in order to be used and revised and remixed. Otherwise it just kind of sits on a server and does nothing. Which is okay, but not ideal. That, of course, has a fair bit to do with how interesting or helpful it is, but also with how technologically compatible it is with what others are using, how easy it is to change, and whether it can be found in the first place–all of which are other important issues to consider in open educational resources. I’ll have to take a look at some of Hyde’s work sometime. Thanks!

    2. Hi Rosemary:

      I just found this post through Twitter: The circle of giving: why give away your expertise?, which gives me a pretty good sense of some of Hyde’s points about gifts. In particular, it explains the idea of gifts constantly moving. I hadn’t really realized that he meant the person receiving the gift needs to move it along to someone else, that there’s a sense of imbalance otherwise. I think that’s an interesting point, and it goes to something Rob Myers says in his comment here about copyleft being similar. I’m kind of torn between the idea of a gift being something that’s entirely freely given in the sense of not having any obligations attached to do anything back for the giver or for anyone else, and something that does provide an obligation to move it (or something similar) along to others. The latter would create a better community, most likely. But I kind of like the idea of just giving with no strings attached; it seems more of a gift that way: here it is, do whatever you want, it’s up to you.

      Still thinking about all this, though, and thank you again for helping me do so.

  3. Christina,

    As somebody still grappling with where to go with this issue, and having saved your previous blog on CC0, I read this with great interest. The issues are complex and merit the reflection you are giving them…I for one will do a spot of ‘slow reading’ on several of your posts to help me untangle my own thoughts and feelings on my own work. Thank you.

    1. I’m glad you’re finding these helpful, Mariana. I had an inkling of may of the arguments involved before writing these posts, but not all of them. It was good to be able to say to myself that I’ve really thought these things through rather than just decided on a license without looking at all the variables. It does take a long time to consider, and I expect there’s more out there that I didn’t even find in terms of other arguments!

  4. SA doesn’t say “you must not block anyone from using this work”, it says “if you receive a copy of this work you must be free to use it”. It is surely reasonable to charge for media costs (the GPL allows this). Gifts can become white elephants otherwise. The price reduction arguments Lowe makes depress the incentives for paywalling BY-SA work, and the license means that once you extract the work from the paywall you are free to share it again.

    License incompatibility with BY-SA isn’t a major real world problem except with NC, and that’s a matter of principle so it’s not possible to resolve it. CC do have a mechanism in BY-SA to declare other licenses “compatible” with BY-SA, and there’s work going on to make use of that in the 4.0 revision of the license. In particular, GPL compatibility is on the table.

    And yes as Rosemary points out gifts do come at the price of obligation. This is something that copyleft translates from tribal to civil society in the form of law.

    All that said BY is a good license. I’ve learnt a lot from your research, and your discussion of the issues has been thought-provoking.

    1. I see your first point, here, and I didn’t look carefully enough at Downes’ original argument to see its flaws. Here’s how I’m getting your point. The Free Software Foundation “copyleft” definition, but that says that if you distribute a work, you have to pass along the same freedoms that were attached to it when you got it. And the legal terms of the CC-BY-SA license say similarly that if you redistribute (or create a derivative and redistribute), you can do so only under terms of a license with the same elements as the original one, which also suggests passing along the same freedoms that were attached to it when you got it. This could sound like saying “you must not block anyone from using the work,” at least in some sense–namely the sense of not blocking their freedom to use it in the same way you had such freedom.

      However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t charge any money for it, because it doesn’t mean you can’t block access to the work in any way at all, just that you can’t put a license on it that doesn’t allow others the same freedoms you had when you received it. Does that fit with what you’re saying here?

      I think I see Downes’ point, now that I think about it further, as trying to argue for what we should think of as “freedom to use.” He argues that if a work has a charge attached for access, then it’s no longer free. So he is probably saying: if you really want to say people should be free to use works under CC or other licenses, then they shouldn’t cost money, or else they aren’t free. Even if we say that the copyleft licenses allow people to use things freely and require that they pass on such freedoms to others, Downes would probably say that they aren’t free in the first place.

      I hadn’t thought of SA as meaning, “if you receive a copy you must be free to use it,” though that does change the argument a bit. Downes wants to address the issue of access with saying work shouldn’t cost money if it’s to be free, and you’re saying with this reading of SA that the freedom has to do with what is possible after you’ve gotten access in some way. So there seems to be a fundamental difference there.

      I do think it’s reasonable to ask for some payments for some works, though I don’t know enough about the technological issues involved with code and software to know what needs to be charged for, exactly. And, of course, I’m not terribly worried about people even using my own work to make money for themselves, if they can.

      I’m curious to see what happens with the latest license revisions that might promote a bit more compatibility. I know GPL compatibility has been an issue in the past. But can you explain further why license incompatibility isn’t a real world problem except with NC? Do you mean that putting things together into a remix is fine as long as none of it has an NC license? I haven’t thought it through, but I guess if something has CC-BY, and something else CC0, and something else CC-BY-SA, they could all be put together (though the whole would have to be released as CC-BY-SA). If you put in stuff with CC-BY-NC to that mix, though, you’d have to release the whole with…what? CC-BY-SA won’t work because the stuff with NC would need an NC license on the end product? Is that right? Sorry, I’m just thinking aloud here, and still puzzling through it all.

      I do very much see the ideas behind SA, and copyleft in general, and this is the one I struggled with the most. I am not sure I agree that receiving a gift means you have to keep giving it to others. I was thinking that giving a gift and having it continue to move means many people use it, rather than it keeps being given away. But really, I’m still working through my feelings on this one. The BY vs. SA issue is the hard one, I think. Thanks for helping me think further.

  5. Christina: Thanks for the reference to the post on “the circle of giving: why give away your expertise?” I am drawn to both the gift-with-obligation-to-move-it-on approach and to your gift-as-letting-go approach. There is something about the letting-go approach that reminds me of a trivial but telling moment during a 6-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail with my younger brother and sister in 1978. As the only one who had a continuing small sabbatical income during the hike, I agreed to include $20 in each of the drop-boxes we had addressed to ourselves along the way at postoffices near trailheads. I assured my siblings that we would spit the money equally, to buy what we needed or craved, and that I did not consider it as “mine”. I realized how much I still had some residual claim on this cash, however, when my brother (who was then a vegetarian purist who refused to put any sugar in his body), wanted to spend “his” portion on organic peanut butter when there was an extra pound of Skippy in our dropbox that we then had to throw away before hiking on (every ounce of weight counted then). I don’t remember now if I argued with him about “wasting perfectly good peanut butter”, but I haven’t forgotten what that taught me about the meaning of letting go. I look forward to continuing the conversation about sharing our creations.

    1. Great story, Rosemary! Really interesting. I think I’d have the same reaction as you did, so I, too, am a bit ambivalent here. One thing that doing these posts taught me is that my earlier thought that choosing a license is just an easy, quick thing to do is not really true–if, that is, one takes seriously the various arguments on all sides. I was quite content in my choice of licenses, and now I’m more unsure. I think that’s probably a good thing.

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