On why we consider some licenses closed (at the moment)

ResearchEquals has a Pay To Close model, but why are some licenses considered closed, really?

On why we consider some licenses closed (at the moment)
Photo by Li Zhang / Unsplash

Copyright is automatic: You create something and it will have copyright. This blog, just by writing it will have copyright. Even your doodles. It is the contract without paper trail. That also means: Without any intervention, nobody will be able to legally copy it.

The interventions to make that copyright more workable are important in open movements. Such interventions provide the legal certainty to reuse whatever it is you are interested in. The MIT and GPL licenses in open source. Creative Commons licenses in open access.

This is not a blog about how to choose a license — it is a blog about some of the intricacies that went into decisions while building ResearchEquals. Specifically, it is about why we consider some licenses open access and others as part of our “Pay To Close” model.

The point of this blog is to have concrete things to (dis)agree with and allow for the ResearchEquals community to continue the discussion.

ResearchEquals is built as an open access publishing platform. In our pilot prior to ResearchEquals, we only offered public domain dedication and the attribution licenses, which people felt was too restrictive. So we wondered, how can we introduce restrictive licenses as options but in a way that is in line with our value of making knowledge available and reusable?

Before I can discuss the intricacies, I have to mention what those more restrictive licenses are. These include a combination of not using the work for commercial activities (non-commercial; NC), not making anything else with it (no derivatives; ND), or not using any other license upon reuse (share alike; SA). In the worst case: All rights reserved and you always need to get permission from the author(s).

With a range of restrictive licensing options out of the way: Why do we consider share alike, non-commercial, and non-derivatives “Pay To Close”?

Demarcating open

The Berlin Declaration on Open Access (2003) says open access must satisfy two conditions:

  1. Free and irrevocable access to the work
  2. Right to (re)use, copy, distribute, transmit, and create derivatives of the work for any purpose

With this definition, the non-commercial and non-derivative clauses immediately fall by the wayside. Big publishers have tried real hard to make the non-commercial clause accepted as open, but simply have failed over the past decades. It was an easy decision to add all the licenses with non-commercial or non-derivative clauses into the “Pay To Close” model as a result.

The share alike license on the other hand, remained more ambiguous.

There is a long history in open source of MIT versus GPL, which is, in the most crude sense, a parallel to CC BY (attribution) and CC BY-SA (share alike), respectively. I conceptualize the differences between them not on purely legalistic grounds, but as fundamental value differences: the public domain philosophy on the one hand and the copyleft philosophy on the other.

The public domain philosophy of open, as I understand it, is about getting creative works as close to the public domain as possible, as fast as possible. If I put a public domain dedication on it, I get as close to public domain as can be. Only requiring an attribution, is pretty close too. If I keep all rights to myself, it’s as far from public domain as can be: Seventy years after my death.

The public domain philosophy strives for copyright minimalism.

The copyleft philosophy of open is about using copyright enforcement to create more and more content that will have to be shared openly. This means, if content under share alike gets reused, there will be more open content than there was before. These must also be share alike and in turn will create more open content if reused themselves, and so on. This can end up in a reusable utopia that self-perpetuates, if the share alike condition is strictly enforced.

The share alike philosophy aims to invert the copyright regime in place, but not do away with it.

As you read, copyright minimalism versus copyright enforcement are very different philosophies. Copyright minimalism resonates more with personally.

Copyright enforcement for the purposes that would suit me simply sounds off — how can we guarantee that same enforcement will not be used for other purposes? The share alike philosophy benefits from strong copyright enforcement, which could enable stronger copyright legislation, and copyright maximalism potentially. This is counterproductive in my opinion.

In the long run, copyright minimalism is what I work towards instead of using the enforcement powers for the values I have. That this resonates more with my perspective on open is in the end why ResearchEquals demarcates the “Pay To Close” model the way it does.

I recognize the power I have to make decisions about how ResearchEquals is shaped in these early days. It is not my goal to keep that power to myself, which is why that power is distributed at our General Assemblies. We will soon restart our supporting membership onboarding and how you can get the power to co-create ResearchEquals there. So if you want share alike to be considered open instead of “Pay To Close” - come put it on the agenda at an assembly!

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