Open access for scholarly publications, part 16 – CC Licenses

The National Library of Sweden has held the appropriation directive from the Swedish Government to produce recommendations for the change to an open access scholarly publication system. These recommendations are presented by Henrik Schmidt, librarian here at KIB, in a series of blog posts.

Copyright licensing is a key question to consider when transitioning to an open access scholarly publication system. Roughly, we tend to speak of two parts to copyright: moral and economic rights. Authors surrendering their economic rights to the publishing company is a basic prerequisite of the subscription-based publication system that we are now trying to leave. Only if the author signs an agreement in which they surrender their economic rights (”copyright transfer agreement”) can the publisher sell rights to the work and decide if, how, when and at what price the publication can be used by others.

However, almost twenty years ago, the so-called Budapest Initiative suggested using an open access publication system instead. In what was at that time a rather drastic formulation, the Initiative determined that authors should be able to maintain ”control of the integrity of their work,” as well as ”the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.” Legally speaking, in the field of academic publishing as well as within other areas, this idea has developed into what is today known as Creative Commons (CC) licensing. CC-licensing has become well-established and its use has grown drastically. According to statistics, there are more than one and a half billion CC-licensed works. 

But CC-licensing does not replace copyright; it is an addition – a CC-addition. When a person creates and presents a work (that possesses a certain threshold of originality), copyright belongs to that person. This instant right lets the copyright holder decide how their work can be used. In a CC-addition, the copyright holder – in our case the publishing researcher – can grant permission for others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work according to specifications set by the copyright holder. The idea is to make it easy for an author to share their work widely, while still in ways that are consistent with copyright laws. 

Permission thus arrives with a CC-attribution. In most instances, the CC-license conditions to specify that the author shall explicitly be acknowledged; this is the so-called CC BY attribution clause. In addition to CC BY, the author can add other conditions. One such condition is that whoever reuses their work can only share it in accordance with the license established by the author. This condition is called Share-Alike (SA). Two additional conditions can also be specified: one, that the work cannot be used for commercial purposes (Non-Commercial, or NC), and that the work cannot be edited or amalgamated with other works (No Derivative Works, ND). Conditions of licensing can also be combined.  

In its current form (version 4.0), CC-licensing offers six kinds of attributions: CC BY, CC BY-SA, CC BY-NC, CC BY-ND, CC BY-NC-SA and CC BY-NC-ND. It actually also offers a seventh license, in which the author surrenders the copyright completely and the work enters the public domain, a domain which includes works whose copyright has already expired. For example, copyright expires after a specified time after an author’s death. This seventh license is rendered as CC 0.  

Complicated? Yes. This picture of copyright, CC-licensing, the exception to the rule that grants employers the right to assume copyright over an employee’s work, and then the teachers´ exemption on top of that, is far from crystal clear. Nor is there total consensus regarding interpretation or use. For this reason the investigation, which is at the center of this series of blog posts, received a specific directive to closely investigate and produce recommendations for a national standard for CC-licensing. The National Library of Sweden was also tasked with recommending a model for follow-up. The investigation, presented in the spring of 2019, consists partially of a recommendation as well as an exhortation to continue to investigate and educate regarding copyright issues.

The investigation recommends that the CC BY license should be used in research and higher education in Sweden. It is also acceptable for researchers who want to use the share alike attribution, CC BY-SA. The Swedish research council specifies that researchers who pay a publication fee (article processing charge, APC) to publish an article with open access “must publish under a Creative Commons licence, the version named CC-BY”. The council also emphasises the importance of the license being clearly designated in the metadata available for the publication, in order to ease and promote the reusability of digital resources. The more restrictive licenses (NC and ND) limit the dissemination of research results, which is contradictory to the purpose of an open access publication system. 

With a CC license, an author permits others to reuse their material. CC-licensing also answers the question, ”What can I do with this?” through its clearly specified conditions. CC licenses have been and still are a central part of an open publishing system. In the kind of business model based on publishing fees, a publishing researcher retains copyright and can determine how their work can be used. A problem, however, is that some publishing companies have injunctions regarding which CC licenses can be used, and at the same time research funding agencies prohibit the use of such licenses. The investigation from the National Library of Sweden consequently suggests that researchers should be provided with practical, hands-on guidance in CC licensing. Thus far, information available via the National Library of Sweden about how researchers ought to proceed with CC licensing is fairly rudimentary.  

We conclude this post, and this series, with the same quotation (below) that introduces the investigation from the National Library of Sweden. It is taken from the Budapest Initiative, and hones in on the two things that we might remind ourselves of as common goals when the discussion over the details of open access publishing becomes too tangled and infected: 

An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet.

Recommendation 16 reads as follows: That the following national standards of CC licensing be recommended and used for open access scientific reources: CC BY (or CC-BY-SA and CC-0, when motivated).

Find out more about the description of and argument in favour of this recommendation in the report: Uppföljning av krav på öppen tillgång till publikationer samt rekommendationer för Creative Commons-licenser (only in Swedish). Here you can also find the final report where the transition to open access is contextualized.

All blog posts in this series

Henrik Schmidt

Librarian engaged in research support in various forms. Teaches doctoral students and researchers in areas related to literature search, publishing strategies and publication analysis.