Dear not-for-profit community, thanks for all the great work you do in the public interest. As I stumble across your sites in web searches, or check them out on the advice of friends, I note that many of you are using CreativeCommons licenses, which is great. I’m a long-time supporter of CC licenses, in fact I spent a number of years doing voluntary work to increase awareness and use of the CC licenses in Aotearoa (NZ). It’s always exciting to see people making creative use of CC licenses, placing their work under a Some Rights Reserved model that is more in tune with the digital age than the ARR (All Rights Reserved) copyright automatically applied in many jurisdictions.

Just to be clear; I am not a laywer, and this letter is not legal advice. It’s just my opinion as an activist and a support of the digital commons. However, if you’re still using version 3.0 (or earlier) of the CC licenses, or you’ve chosen one of the licenses with NC (NonCommercial) or ND (NoDerivatives) clauses, I’d like to suggest a couple of changes to your choice of license. There are two parts to this, and I’ll explain them both as best I can from an activist perspective.

The first, and simplest part, is the upgrade from version 3.0 of the CC licenses to version 4.0. A number of improvements were made to the wording of the license texts in version 4.0, to bring them up-to-date with changes in copyright law, and further clarify things like what is and isn’t counted as “commercial use” of a licensed work. The biggest change between these versions is that from version 4.0 onward there is one international version of each CC license, instead of having to “port” each license to make it compatible with the copyright law of each jurisdiction, as was the case in previous versions. This is a welcome change, as it makes more sense for international media like the internet and the web. A summary of the differences between the various versions can be found on the CC wiki (just a guide, not legal advice).

So if the CC license you chose still reflects the ways you do and don’t want the work on your site to be used, I suggest upgrading to version 4.0 of that license. See the upgrade guide also on the CC wiki (also not legal advice) But if you chose a license with an NC or ND clause, does the license you chose really reflect the ways you do and don’t want the work on your site to be used? This brings me to the second part of my license upgrade suggestion. Let’s have a look at some of the pros and cons of using a CC license that includes the NC or ND clauses.

The CC wiki summarizes the meaning of the NonCommercial clause. NC is confusingly named, because it’s useful mainly to creators whose work is intended for commercial sale. For example, NC can be used by musicians, film-makers, or novelists, creators who have to invest significant resources to get their work ready for distribution, to prevent anyone selling copies in competition with them (and any distributors they have negotiated commercial contracts with). The idea that NC marks a work as having a not-for-profit goal is such a common misconception that serious thought was given to renaming it “Commercial Rights Reserved” in version 4.0 of the licenses. While the decision was made to keep the existing wording, for the sake of consistency between license versions, CC encourages us to use the “Commercial Rights Reserved” wording to help make the purpose of the NC clause clearer. Some arguments against using the NC clause can be found on the website of the Definition of Free Cultural Works.

Turning to the NoDerivatives clause, perhaps the best argument for ND restrictions comes from gnu.org, the website of the pioneering GNU Project:

“Works that express someone’s opinion—memoirs, editorials, and so on—serve a fundamentally different purpose than works for practical use like software and documentation. Because of this, we expect them to provide recipients with a different set of permissions: just the permission to copy and distribute the work verbatim.”

But it can also be argued that the ND clause is pointless for works that consist mainly of text. By using an excerpt from a gnu.org work, as I’ve done above, I’ve arguably made a “derivative work”. But this is allowed, because of the long-standing convention that one can reproduce any portion of a text, as long as it is placed within quote marks, and attributed to the original author. The one thing that All Rights Reserved copyright definitely says people can’t do with text - reproducing the entire work in its original form (even with quotes and attribution) - is the one thing that any CC license definitely allows.

One major downside of using a license that includes the ND clause is that it stops people translating your work into other languages, without first getting your permission to create a derivative work. Another problem with ND is that it stop works being included in free commons licensed under BY-SA or BY licenses, from online reference works like Wikipedia.org or Appropedia.org, to Open Educational Resources like WikiEducator or open textbooks, and many, many more. This is also true of the NC clause. Is restricting uses like these what you had in mind when you chose an NC or ND license? If so, then you chose the right license for your project. If not, it might be time to think about other options.

If your work has any commercial value to corporations, or anyone else who might try to extract value from your common work without voluntarily contributing back, the SA (ShareAlike) clause can be used to mitigate this. With an SA license, like the BY-SA license used by Wikipedia, anyone who reproduces the work, or makes a derivative work, must make any changes they’ve made available under the same license terms. If someone publishes a derivative work, you can choose to incorporate any of the changes or improvements you like back into your version of the work.

I originally dipped my toes into the water of creative commoning by putting my own writing at Disintermedia.net.nz under an NC license, but for the reasons given above, I decided on a change of license. All the work I write for Disintermedia, Counterclaim, and any other not-for-profit projects, is now licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (unless there is a very strong argument for doing otherwise). So in summary, based on my experiences as a commoner and a CC advocate, my suggestion is that you consider talking to the people who shared in the creation of the work on your website about the possible benefits of relicensing to CC BY-SA 4.0.

One other thing, I notice some sites make it very hard to understand which CC license applies to their site (I’ll restrain myself from making an example of anyone here). To avoid confusion, please:

  • Indicate the name and version number of the license you’ve chosen in a prominent place on your site, and link it to the appropriate license page on the CreativeCommons website (eg CreativeCommons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0).
  • Make sure if the license is given in more than one place, for example on a copyright page *and* at the bottom of each page, that the license name and version number is the same on both, and they both link to the correct license page.
  • Use the correct CC license icon for the license you’ve chosen, and make sure that links to the correct license page too.
  • Check that the icon and link indicate the same license everywhere they appear, except where they indicate work under a different license from the rest of the site. When that’s the case, it’s best to make the license exception clear in an introduction or footer text, giving attribution to the creator, and if possible, linking to the original.

Keep up the good work!

Filed December 19th, 2018 under free culture

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