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A Scientist and the Web


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 :

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



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