Why I and you should avoid NC licences

Richard Kid – an friend and collaborator from the Royal Society of Chemistry – asks why I don’t like NC (non-commercial) Open Source licences:

December 16, 2010 at 10:32 am  (Edit)

But what about the authors’ intentions when they put a NC license on a piece of work? They want to share, but not for others to make money off the back of their work. When you say they shouldn’t specify that, what choices are they left with? Will this lead to less work being made available as open source?

You’re asking people to make an additional leap of faith, but not addressing the reasons why people pick a standard NC license.

I wouldn’t have thought that anyone would sensibly class teaching as commercial; and for things like writing a book – why not ask? They’ll either agree it can be used in situation X, or not. Or ask for a charitable donation. Or a postcard. Or a small payment. Aren’t we forgetting that human communication can deal with nuance a whole lot better than a standard set of words on a page?

I understand the sentiments and have shared them in the past. In fact I started this blog as CC-NC, but then moved to CC-BY (we may have lost that in the current blog-move but rest assured this blog is CC-BY).

What is the motivation for NC? I can see the following:

  • To create a monopoly for me to exploit the work. This is still, I think, a valid motive in the creative arts. But not in scholarly work
  • Because I don’t like the commercial sector.
  • To attract other volunteers to the project.

Addressing some of the points:

  • There is every evidence that in code specifically NC is less useful than BY. If code were constrained by BY from adoption then the community would have moved to NC. But that prevents huge take up by other sectors.
  • If I run a workshop, and you visit and we charge you a registration fee, that’s commercial. When lecturers provide lecture notes they have to pay publishers to use copyright material. That’s a commercial transaction (in the opposite direction). When students pay fees to a private university that’s a commercial activity.
  • Why not ask? Because most of the time you don’t get a reply. And that’s true of publishers. We’ve been waiting years for a reply from two chemical publishers (not RSC). And software cannot ask people. Human activity doesn’t scale. When I abstract 100,000 documents then I cannot write to every author and every publisher. I can only go by the licence. If it’s NC I can’t use the material

There are many other reasons why NC doesn’t work. Here’s a good resource http://freedomdefined.org/Licenses/NC :

The key problems with -NC licenses are as follows:

  • They make your work incompatible with a growing body of free content, even if you do want to allow derivative works or combinations.
  • They may rule out other basic and beneficial uses which you want to allow.
  • They support current, near-infinite copyright terms.
  • They are unlikely to increase the potential profit from your work, and a share-alike license serves the goal to protect your work from exploitation equally well.

I converted from CC-NC to CC-BY and haven’t regretted it. Why should we prevent commercial exploitation of our work? Content will become zero-cost in the future – it’s what is done with it that matters



17 thoughts on “Why I and you should avoid NC licences

  1. Gordon Haff

    It’s always struck me that a cautious reading of non-commercial excludes just about everything that wouldn’t be either trivial (i.e. if I use your photo as my computer wallpaper, who is going to know irrespective of the license) or non-profit educational use that could often fall under fair use anyway. I’ve seen people argue strongly that they consider use of their content on personal pages with Adsense commercial.

    I think most people are attracted to it because it has this “I want to share with the community but it’s not fair for someone to profit off my work” vibe that just feels right at first glance. It’s telling that no major open source software licenses have this sort of restriction.

  2. Egon Willighagen

    Thanx for writing this up! The “they are unlikely to increase the potential profit from your work” is quite interesting, and likely very true. In an era where exchange of information is really cheap, the NC would block other to make a sustainable model around the material, but that does not mean that you will. Instead, by the mere fact that the material is CC already, combined with free content, people will be able to share it anyway.

    Effectively, you make it impossible to build an Open ecosystem where others can sustainably contribute to the project too.

  3. Chris Rusbridge

    Well, a primary motivation for those who are required to be “sustainable” is that those who classify themselves as non-commercial get to use freely, while those who classify themselves as commercial get to ask. In the only case where my previous organisation was asked, we bent over backwards to both agree and to get some payback if the use made lots of money.

    To be clear: a NC licence doesn’t mean “don’t use” it means “don’t use without permission”.

    All that said, I’ve spent the last 15 years realising that most sustainability approaches simply put blocks in front of use without actually providing any sustainability. So in reality I think I’m with you here.

    But getting sustainability is a real bummer…

    1. Gordon Haff

      Speaking for myself, I’m very careful to use only CC licensed photos/graphics for commercial use when I give presentations for my company. In theory, I could ask for permission with other material, but unless there were something that was just *perfect*, I just tend to use something els. And, if I’m going to pay anyway, microstock is often the better route.

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  5. Richard

    Thanks for the replies, Peter and others

    Not taking away from the entirely laudable vision, and the attempts to remove possible barriers to that vision by discouraging the use of NC, but I do feel removing this as a valid option will result in more migration to ‘not-Open’ than ‘Open’.

    It requires a leap of faith to discount *any* possible recognition through revenue in the future, no matter how slim that possibility is. So while NC may be a block to sustainability, absence of NC may be a block to release.

    My interpretation is the same as Chris Rusbridge’s above, pretty much. Asking for permission isn’t always scalable but works pretty well most of the time.


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  7. Stephen Downes

    I use the NC clause in all my work, and my motivation, rather than the straw man argument typically presented by pro-commercialization arguments, is very pragmatic: I do not want people to restrict access to my work.

    The point here is, when people ‘commercialize’ content, such as my writing, what they are doing is making money by charging for access to the work. This means that, if someone does not pay them money, they will deny that person access to the work. This is wrong. This is not what is meant by ‘free’.

    1. pm286 Post author

      Commercial organizations cannot prevent people having access to the free content. If you create version A1 and a commercial copies it to A2 and restricts it then the world can still use A1. If they enhance A2 to B2 then they are welcome to and if it’s perceived as “better” than A1 then that is their right. You challenge that by making a C1 which is better than B2, not by restricting them. I don’t see what you have lost by removing NC. It CANNOT affect your work.

  8. Lanna Innovation

    The problem with using non-NC licenses for some kinds of content is that it can create competitors. In cases where the IP is not a competitive advantage then sharing is the best approach (BY-CC). We have some work that we author and copyright precisely to create revenue. Otherwise it is miserly to do so. As per the comment on permission, we agree. We have always provided permission when asked.

    1. pm286 Post author

      >>The problem with using non-NC licenses for some kinds of content is that it can create competitors.
      Agreed. There is nothing wrong with creating software that is sold. But if you licence it as NC then you are neither in the spirit of F/OSS or Open Data.

      >>In cases where the IP is not a competitive advantage then sharing is the best approach (BY-CC). We have some work that we author and copyright precisely to create revenue.
      Nothing wrong. But don’t use NC. It’s effectively unworkable and creates huge amounts of wasted time for exactly the people that you might like to benefit from it.

      >>Otherwise it is miserly to do so. As per the comment on permission, we agree. We have always provided permission when asked.

      Asking persmission is fine. But it’s effectively not Open. The effort in asking permission – particularly when there are thousands of items as in papers pr data sets – can be enormous. It solves nothing. The grantees cannot effectively re-use the material.


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