Openness, Permission, Courtesy and Nuances of Licenses

bee about to land on flower

I don’t know how common it is for folks to have to explain Creative Commons licenses for others, but it often feels like a “continuously negotiated” thing (to use Catherine Cronin’s term). So I recently had a conversation that went something like this, with a professor who wants to create an open textbook (the actual discussion was slightly more complex and with more people involved):

Me: so what kind of license do you want on the book?
Prof: I am happy for people to reuse it as long as they attribute me.
Me: Do you want to allow people to make derivatives of your work? To remix it?
Prof: huh. That wouldn’t make sense. It wouldn’t make sense divided up.
Me: but would it bother you if someone was teaching something and needed to take parts of it and merge them with other stuff? I mean, if you don’t allow it, they could still link to page X of it…
Prof: ok then. I’m ok with derivatives. No wait. There are parts of it, the ones I took from others with permission. We can’t have derivatives of those. Should I make the entire book no derivatives?
Me: Well.. What about translations? Do you want to prevent those?
Prof: No, I want to allow that.
Me: Ah. Ok. Umm maybe we clarify somewhere in the book what you mean to allow and what not. What about commercial use? Do you want to allow that?
Prof: No. I don’t wanna allow anyone to monetize my work
Me: What about a professor at a for-profit University or a private tutor who’s getting paid to tutor. Do you want to allow them to use it?
Prof: Of course…
Me: But you don’t want people to sell the book, is what you mean?
Prof: Yes. That.
Me: OK. Maybe we have a CC-BY-NC-ND license but write somewhere in the book when you consider commerical use and derivatives ok.
Prof: sounds good.

I go off and remind myself for the 100th time what the NC license means. I am reminded again that it relies heavily on human judgment of what is considered “primarily for commercial purposes” but I also notice, for the first time, that Creative Commons discourage people from making up their own interpretations of licenses. I realize creating more nuanced licenses is a headache and would confuse people. But I don’t understand why you would create a license that is intentionally flexible (and therefore vague but in a good way) and not want authors to clarify why they chose a particular license. Why would it be inadvisable to explain what I allow without asking permission and what I would like to be asked permission for?

For example. Someone may dislike their work being cut up into parts, but be willing for it to be translated or if it’s a video to be subtitled for accessibility. But all of these are restricted by “no derivatives”, so why can’t a creator clarify and save people some time/effort? You know, “my work is generally no derivatives, unless you mean to translate, then go ahead”. Or for the non-commercial, why can’t someone say, “I do not wish for others to sell this book, but I approve of private tutors/institutions using/distributing it in its entirety for teaching purposes as long asl learners receive the book itself at no additional cost to them”. Or something like that. I feel that sometimes the people who feel strongly about CC-BY believe they know something that the rest of us don’t. But I think maybe they don’t know something that some of us do: that there are people out there who could take one’s work, work that one has made openly available to others, and sell it for profit, and the end user would be none the wiser. Now why would I want that to happen to my work? I haven’t yet heard a good response to this one, really.

I have noticed before people on Flickr who give their work a CC license and then complain that folks take their photos without informing them (attribution, yes; informing/thanking, no). Sure, it’s good courtesy to thank folks if you use their photos, but such a hassle to do it for each photo you use on a slide deck or such. The whole point of using CC licensed stuff is to not always ask permission. That’s what the CC license is. Permission to anyone. To do what the license permits you to do. I realized that I always “favorite” any photo I’m planning to use, so I guess I’m giving the creator some kind of indication that I like their photo, but not really telling them I’m planning to use it, or how.

I remember learning this the first time someone republished something of mine without my permission. If it’s CC licensed, the whole point is to tell them they don’t need to seek permission each time. It’s good courtesy, I think, to inform the author, but it’s not necessary. But it’s complex. If a for-profit entity republished my CC-BY-NC article, but publishes it openly and for free, is that a commercial use? What if the space has ads on it, is that a commercial use? If I publish my blog CC-BY and a for-profit magazine regularly republishes it, am I really OK with that? Am I OK with a magazine with values opposed to my own constantly republishing my stuff without my permission? What about if they take derivatives of my writing and use it in a different context, to really make an opposing point to mine, is that acceptable to me? These are not trivial questions, I think, for openness advocates to ask themselves.

On a slightly different note, but still on the topic of courtesy and permission…
Today, for the first time ever, someone I had never spoken to before emailed me asking permission to annotate a blogpost of mine in a workshop, and letting me know the annotation would be private and I was welcome to join in if I had time, but that they understand if I am too busy. I have had folks annotate then tell me they did. I was happy with it. It’s refreshing that after the recent discussions on this topic that some people are taking it seriously. More than the courtesy of asking permission, I was also happy to know a blogpost of mine was getting annotated, and interested in being included in the private group. I realize that in most of academia and the world of publishing, people will not necessarily inform an author that they are holding a book club or reading group around their writing, unless they have a personal connection to the author or something. Twitter helps sometimes. But this person did not know me beforehand and they did not reach out to me via Twitter. So thanks to Timothy Clarke and Jenna Azar of Muhlenberg College for using my blogpost in their workshop, but also thank you for seeking permission, modeling that responsiveness and sensitivity.

It made me think about how the process of asking permission involved human communication and that this can be valuable when you have the time for it. Earlier today, incidentally, someone asked my permission to show my blog as part of a workshop on #DoOO they’re giving. Again, my blog is right there, it’s openly licensed. They didn’t have to seek my permission. But they did, and if nothing else, it made me happy. And I also offered to respond to participants’ questions on Twitter during the workshop. More opportunities to connect.

What do you think about the nuances of Creative Commons licenses and permissions in general? What challenges do you face?
Tell us in the comments

["Permission to land" flickr photo by creyesk shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license]

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