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djacovkis's blog

Creative Commons and Copyleft

During the search of free educational materials for the SELF Platform , it is quite usual to find content without a license attached. To the question "Under which license is this document published?", several have answered "It has a CC license". And that is usually bad news.

Creative Commons is not a single license but a family of licenses. The different CC licenses differ in the rights they reserve to the owner of the content:
  • Attribution (by): reserved in all CC licenses, guarantees that the original author is given credit when the content is redistributed.
  • No derivatives (nd): the content cannot be changed in any way.
  • Non-commercial (nc): commercial use of the content is prohibited.
  • Share-alike (sa): the redistributed content and derived works must be licensed in the same terms as the original.

This reserved rights are combined in the form of six CC licenses. These range from the CC-by-nc-nd, which allows only non-commercial distribution of the unmodified work (i.e., what you do when you lend or copy a CD to a friend), to the CC-by-sa, the good ol' copyleft. The later is equivalent to the GPL-like licenses used in Free Software. In short, a copyleft license says: you can use this in any way you like, share it, sell it, print it upside down and sell it again or mix it with your cereal for breakfast, as long as you (i) give credit to the ones who worked on it before and (ii) share it in the same terms you received it.

Then, why is it a bad thing when someone says that a work "has a CC license"? First of all, confusion. We have seen that the Creative Commons covers at least six very different licenses, ranging from the very restrictive to the genuinely free as in freedom . So, "I use a CC license" sounds to me like "I have no idea about licenses, and I don't care too much. But the CC logo looks cool at the bottom of the page, doesn't it?".

Second, and most important for the SELF Project: when the license of a work is just "a CC license", it will probably be non-commercial. I can understand that when it comes from an individual or a company who expect to comercialise that content. But when it comes from a public organisation, I really don't get it. If we all put money in our governments, why shouldn't we be able to enjoy the results? What's wrong with people making money with those works? And even more when we would all benefit from the improvements, if the work had a copyleft license. I like to think that many of those CC-by-nc-nd licenses have not been chosen after a serious evaluation of the available options and their consequences, so I hope in many cases we will be able to successfully advocate for a change from "a CC license" to real copyleft, be it GFDL, CC-by-sa or any other free documentation license.

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