Why CC-BY?

At OASPA, one of the criteria for membership is that a publisher must use a liberal license that encourages the reuse and distribution of content. We strongly encourage (but currently do not require) the use of the CC-BY license wherever possible.  Given recent moves in the UK by the Wellcome Trust and the Research Councils UK to mandate use of the CC-BY license when funds are used to pay for open access publishing, it is an appropriate moment to consider why CC-BY would be the optimal license for open access publishing.

As emphasized by the early declarations on open access in Budapest, Bethesda and Berlin, open access is about more than access – open access removes access and reuse barriers, and thus has the potential to transform the literature into a much more powerful resource for research, education and innovation.   The field of genomics provides a prime example of open access in action.

In June 2011, the Battelle Technology Partnership published a report that estimated the economic impacts of the human genome project.  The headline findings were that a $3.8billion investment by the US government towards determining the sequence of the human genome helped to drive approximately $800billion in economic output and the creation of over 300,000 jobs.  Critical to the success of this initiative was making the scientific outputs – the sequence data themselves – openly available to researchers and industry alike to use without restriction.

The human genome project is a compelling demonstration of the power of open access to research, and reflects a well-established practice within the genome community to make research data publicly available for all reuses via resources such as GenBank.  It is also interesting that one of the early visionary articles about open access to literature (published in Science in 2001) was entitled “Building a GenBank of the published literature”, the creation of which would “encourage the development of new, more sophisticated, and valuable ways of using this information, much as GenBank has done for DNA sequences”.

To fully realise that potential of open access to research literature, barriers to reuse need to be removed.  The Creative Commons licenses have emerged as an effective legal instrument to achieve this.  Instead of transferring rights exclusively to publishers (the approach usually followed in subscription publishing), authors grant a non-exclusive license to the publisher to distribute the work, and all users and readers are granted rights to reuse the work.

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 in addition to the requirement for attribution.  In keeping with its tagline “some rights reserved”, these are: No Commercial use (NC), No Derivatives (ND) and Share-Alike (SA).  Each type of restriction has its uses, for certain types of content and certain types of sharing.  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.

No Derivatives. Derived use is fundamental to the way in which scholarly research builds on what has gone before. One of the many benefits of open access publishing is that elements such as figures from a published research article can be reused, with attribution, as part of teaching material, or in other published works, without needing to request permission of the publisher. Similarly, article translations, image libraries, case report databases, text-mining enhancements and data visualizations are all examples of how additional value can be created by allowing derivative use.

No Commercial use. There are two key problems with a no commercial use restriction.  The first is that the definition of what constitutes commercial use is necessarily fuzzy, and so any license which restricts commercial use creates a haze of doubt around various uses that may or may not be at risk of being considered commercial, and in doing so acts as a general discouragement to reuse (http://www.samuelabram.com/noncommercial)More importantly, perhaps, scientific research is not funded by taxpayers and companies purely to serve as a resource to further academic discussion and debate. A major justification for the large-scale research investment is that it will produce new knowledge, the application of which will help to develop and enrich our society.  Enabling the commercial sector to have access to and freedom to reuse the findings of published research (as exemplified by the human genome project) is a natural way to seek to achieve these ends.  See also: NC considered harmful

Share-Alike. Material distributed under a share-alike license can be used to create and distribute derivative works, but only if those works are shared under the same Share-Alike license.  Such licenses are sometime referred to as Viral licenses, as “the licenses spread a continuing use of the licenses in its derivatives”.  However, while such 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 contentIn 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.

Given the ways in which additional restrictions can limit the reach and impact of research outputs, OASPA therefore strongly encourages the use of the CC-BY license, rather than one of the more restrictive licenses or indeed a license that is ‘functionally equivalent’ to CC-BY.   We encourage the use of CC licenses, because they are very well established legal tools, and have the benefits of simplicity, machine-readability and interoperability.  Importantly, many elements of internet infrastructure ‘understand’ CC licensing, and can display and filter content appropriately, based on this machine-readable license information (eg Flickr), in a way that is unlikely to be practical for ad hoc, publisher-specific licenses.  For example, Wikipedia moved to Creative Commons licensing in 2007, specifically to benefit from this interoperability. (A side-benefit of OA publishing under CC-BY is that all content published in this way is fully compatible with being included/excerpted/quoted in Wikipedia).  Similarly, the UK Government worked with Creative Commons to make its open data license interoperable with CC BY.

With the building momentum towards open access to research, new and established publishers are launching new open access publications and initiatives.  Many are adopting the CC-BY license, but some publishers are choosing to use more restrictive CC licenses, in particular the non-commercial license.  Various reasons are given for this, most notably that exclusive retention of the commercial rights means that the publisher can benefit from commercial reprint sales, the revenue from which can be particularly significant in medical journals, or sales to other aggregation services providing access to content.  It is argued that such additional sources of revenue help to keep publication fees at a lower level.  OASPA includes, and will currently still admit, members who use the NC restriction (but not the SA or ND restrictions).

Nevertheless, CC-BY is now emerging as the gold standard for OA publishing, particularly in STM fields.  The three largest OA publishers (BioMed Central, PLOS, and Hindawi) all use this license and have created high-quality sustainable businesses.  Major publishers, such as Springer and Wiley-Blackwell, whose businesses have been built on subscription models are moving steadily in the same direction.  As the open access corpus grows, new services, commercial and non-commercial, will be built on top of open access literature, and publishers that impose no limit on the reach and impact of the work that they publish (as enshrined in the CC-BY license) will be the most attractive option for authors.



  1. RMS says

    “Enabling the commercial sector to have access to and freedom to reuse the findings of published research (as exemplified by the human genome project) is a natural way to seek to achieve these ends.”

    CC-BY-NC does not stop this. Research findings can only be prevented from being used commercially by patents, not by copyright.

    • says

      CC BY-NC does indeed prevent many kinds of commercial re-use, hence the name “non-commercial”. Examples would include re-using text or illustrations in tutoring materials, encyclopaedias, and printouts of medical information in many contexts.

  2. says

    You write, “scientific research is not funded by taxpayers and companies purely to serve as a resource to further academic discussion and debate. A major justification for the large-scale research investment is that it will produce new knowledge, the application of which will help to develop and enrich our society. Enabling the commercial sector to have access to and freedom to reuse the findings of published research (as exemplified by the human genome project) is a natural way to seek to achieve these ends.”

    This misrepresents the limitations of CC-NC. It prevents only the reprinting of the content for commercial gain. It does not prevent commercial entities from ‘using’ the work by reading it or applying the ideas commercially.

    The primary reason research attach NC restrictions is to prevent commercial publishers from charging for access to the work. This is to ensure continued free and open access to the work. In this regard, CC-by is *not* ‘the most free’ license. It allows all manner of commercial barriers to be erected around the work.

    • says

      The use of the NC restriction impedes much more than just the ‘reprinting’ of a work for commercial purposes. Removing this restriction allows services and tools, commercial and non-commercial, to be built on top of the literature. Such services might include alerting mechanisms that keep researchers more up-to-date with work that is relevant to them, or might help any reader to interrogate the literature in ways that help them to uncover new knowledge and relationships. With the ever-increasing corpus of findings and data being produced, it is more important than ever to create new tools to understand, navigate and use the literature.

  3. Peter Murray-Rust says

    This is a useful and clear piece.
    As others have said CC-NC prevents a huge number of information products and services being created on top of the primary work. It particularly prevents content-mining – the use of the material by machines. CC-NC is “viral” – any CC-NC content mixed into a collection of other material means that the whole collection may have to be labelled CC-NC.
    CC-NC does not prevent the transmission and use of ideas and its use to try to control this is usually misguided. However it does prevent the easy distribution of the expression of those ideas, particularly using machines

  4. says

    CC-BY is not “the most liberal Creative Commons license”. That title surely has to go to CC-Zero. But attribution is a fundamental part of academic discourse, so requiring attribution for academic content seems reasonable in most (but not necessarily all) contexts.

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