For week three of the Open Education course at the Open University that I am participating in (though we are now in week 5), one of the activities is to choose a Creative Commons license for “your blog content and other material you produce.” Of course, the latter is so vague that it might be difficult for some to say what license they might use for all of it, as they might end up using different licenses for different things. I am likely to just use one, but I may be in the minority.
I have already gone through some soul-searching on this very issue, but in a direction I haven’t seen in any of the other blogs I’ve looked at for this course: in an earlier post I asked why even use CC-BY instead of, say, CC0, which is more like putting one’s work into the public domain. I’m still undecided, but at this point (as you can tell from this site) am still using CC-BY for my blog.
But what I haven’t done is try to explain why I use CC-BY instead of CC-BY-NC (non commercial) or SA (share alike) on my blog, and why I would probably use CC-BY on any OER I might create (unless I decide to use CC0 instead). Generally, I use CC-BY because I want to leave my work free for anyone to use however they like. But the issues involved are really quite complicated.
I’m only going to discuss NC and SA and SA in this and the next post, because I can’t imagine asking people not to make derivatives of what I create–it just seems part of sharing freely, to me, that people can revise and remix my work. This post is about why I don’t use CC-BY-NC, and the next is about why I don’t use CC-BY-SA.
I’ve read several blog posts in the OU Open Education course that opt for CC-BY-NC (such as this one by Nick Hood, this one by David (I can’t find a last name) , this one by Daniela Signor and this one by Sukaina Walji.) Some express the sentiment that if they are giving away things for free, then they don’t want others to be making money off of them. I have to say that I kind of get this sentiment, but also not. I guess the idea is that if any money is to be made from what is produced, then the producer should be the one to benefit rather than someone who has just taken the content for free. This sentiment seems to make sense in a market economy, where many people feel that their work should be compensated monetarily if someone else is making money from it; alternatively, some may think it wrong for others to make money from something they have either not worked on or not paid for.
Of course, this sort of thinking should lead people to support open access publishing, since, increasingly, there is not much that publishers do that justifies them closing off access to publications and charging a fee…but that’s an argument for another day (and more complex than I’m making it out here, yes).
I get the idea that if money is being made from something, it seems fair to give some money to those who created the item in the first place. But it seems to me that once you decide to give your work away to be used, altered and remixed by others, it might be better thought of as a gift than a market commodity. And when you give something away as a gift, you might be said to be allowing the recipient(s) to do whatever they like with it. Sure, some people might be a bit upset if they gave a gift that another person decided to sell–but would they be upset because the other person made money off of something that they got for free and therefore didn’t have the right to make money from? To me, that doesn’t really make sense; if you give it away, it becomes someone else’s to do with as they wish.
When I give my stuff away, I’m saying goodbye to control over what happens to it afterwards, because it’s no longer just mine.
I realize that one of the benefits of CC licenses, though, is to allow people flexibility in the degree to which they want to think of their creations as gifts. And some people won’t accept that way of thinking. So here are some other thoughts.
- If I have chosen not to try to make money off my work, why get upset if someone else does? After all, I could have tried to do so myself, but decided (for whatever reasons) not to. I gave up that option when I didn’t need to. I don’t really understand the sentiment that, if I am not going to make money off my work then no one else can either. Just because I chose to give up getting a financial reward, why must everyone else do so? If it’s because they didn’t work on it or pay for it, consider:
- If someone is going to be able to make money off of something I created, they are going to have to do some work that I chose not to do, such as marketing it. After all, if I already put it out for free for others to reuse, change, remix, then there is probably going to have to be some kind of value added to it in order for others to be willing to pay. Such as, at least, making it well-known through publicity efforts.
An argument for using NC could alternatively be made as follows. A person might use NC on their work so that IF someone else thinks they could make money from what the first person has created, then in order for that to happen the other party must contact and discuss this with the creator, and the creator could set terms that require payment to him/herself. I see that, but even then one is not likely to get much (how much do we get in royalties for academic books, say? A pittance, usually), and to me, especially thinking about my own work, this overvalues the remote possibility of a significant financial gain while ignoring some much more likely costs.
Some of these costs are addressed in article by Erik Möller that has been put into a wiki page. I won’t go through them here because they are pretty well explained on that page. And here’s a nice post by Kathi Fletcher focusing on problems with NC for OERs. Finally, this booklet by Paul Klimpel points out (on pp. 14-15) that the NC clause may actually end up prohibiting use of items by organizations and projects that endorse and promote “open” work, while not stopping large commercial companies from using them against the NC license (because they can absorb the cost of a lawsuit if it should ever come). (The booklet as a whole provides many useful arguments against using NC licenses.)
I’ll just add that this post by Daniel Clark, for the OU Open Education course, nicely addresses the point about the ambiguity of “commercial” in the NC licenses. These comments by David Wiley do too (on a discussion of NC licenses for OER, hosted by UNESCO). And having a license with ambiguous terms is not just a philosophical problem; it can mean that fewer people will use your work because they may be unsure whether their use falls under the vague “commercial” terms.
I have sometimes wondered whether this blog counts as “non commercial,” even, given that it is hosted and supported by the University of British Columbia, which, after all, charges money for its courses and thus “makes money” in some sense. It is syndicated on UBC’s “A Place of Mind” site, and thereby acts as part of the university’s publicity strategy in some (very small) sense. To the extent that my blog might help attract students (hmmm, not sure about that one) or donors (ditto), one might say it’s part of the university’s revenue stream. I realize that’s quite a stretch, but that it could even make sense to consider it shows that “non commercial” is unclear.
And this post by David Wiley shows that I am not alone in asking this sort of question (though the question there is slightly different: it’s about whether a textbook licensed NC could be used for a course that students have to pay for, and Wiley answers yes). I don’t ever use images for this blog that have an NC license, even though I am pretty sure I could. Who knows; maybe someday I’ll move this blog over to a platform on which I actually try to make some money through ads (highly unlikely but…). I refuse to go through and change images from the past were such a thing ever to occur.
There is, however, a more pressing argument for the use of NC, given by Stephen Downes (an example can be found here, in the UNESCO discussion noted above). One part of this is that without the NC clause, commercial ventures can take what is freely available and work hard to “enclose” it completely by closing off access to its free versions. Here’s another iteration of this argument, this time focused on the real-world example of Flat World Textbooks at first publishing free textbooks and then beginning to charge for them. This is a harder point to argue against, for it is clear that those who have a vested interest in profit-making from educational resources will be motivated to find ways to enclose any free versions that might exist (though David Wiley does provide a rebuttal to such arguments, in the UNESCO discussion). Downes defines “commercial use” as “the act of restricting access,” in the UNESCO discussion, which makes sense to me, and I can see the point of trying to use NC to keep access open.
After all, in my “gift” image provided above, what could happen is that I could give something away to anyone and everyone who wanted it (because it’s not just one thing, but reusable, revisable, remixable by anyone), but then one of those recipients could decide they want to make sure no one else can have that gift as a gift. That goes against the spirit of what I tried to do in the first place.
Gratis and libre
So really, the issue seems to come to this (as I’m understanding it): using something like CC-BY only (or CC0) is freeing it in the sense of making it “libre” but could lead to it not being free in the sense of “gratis” (see Wikipedia on libre and gratis). But if you use an NC license, then you might be (if Downes is right) protecting the freedom of that work in terms of it being “gratis,” but it’s not “libre” in the sense of it being available for anyone to do anything they like with it. You’re restricting it to only some kinds of uses.
Downes addresses this distinction somewhat differently, here. He argues that we can look at freedom from the perspective of either the people who already have access to some work or those who do not yet have such access. For the former, freedom in the sense of libre means they can do whatever they wish with the work they already have. For the latter, allowing work to be behind a paywall means many can’t access it at all, much less do anything further with it. The second perspective, he argues, is as important as the first (and for those who can’t access works at all it is more important).
No NC for me
Thus, it depends on which sort of freedom you want to promote, I suppose. I think that the idea of letting people do what they wish with what I create (at least much of it; don’t know yet if all) is more important to me, mostly because of
(a) the ambiguity of “commercial”
(b) I don’t expect to be producing anything that will likely be enclosed by a commercial interest
(c) if someone can add value to my stuff and make some money, that’s fine with me b/c I gave it away by choice rather than trying to do so myself.
I still think of it like a gift, and because of (b) I am not terribly concerned about it becoming enclosed so that others can’t access it freely. I agree rather with Mike Seyfang here, that what I’m most concerned about is people finding and using my work. That’s pretty cool. But unlike what he says in that post, I kind of don’t care about people recognizing it as my work.
What is really needed, I think, is a less blunt instrument to do what Downes wants to do. “Noncommercial” is not only too vague, but too broad a term. I don’t mind if someone uses my stuff to make money for themselves and I don’t care if they ask me first because I don’t feel a need to have a share. But what I don’t want is for them to lock out access for anyone else to have my stuff that I’ve given away for free. Is there some other way to keep that from happening? Downes himself notes a need for such a thing, here:
…we want, I think, something like a ‘free content declaration’, a statement we can link to that identifies our desire, as providers of open content, to ensure that it remains open.
And CC-licenses won’t do this for us, Downes argues. But he uses NC in the meantime, which I have decided not to do, for reasons noted above.
There is, though, an argument that the “share alike” CC license (CC-BY-SA) could prevent commercial enclosure, which I’ll consider in the next post.