What is the best licensing framework for scholarly material? Briefing

Sent out to SPARC Europe supporters on 15 August 2014

You will have noticed of late some activity around the issue of licensing scholarly content. A week ago, some 80+ organisations from around the world, including many publishers, signed up to a letter to STM, the International Association of Scientific, Medical and Technical Publishers, calling on it to withdraw its new set of model licences for academic content.

SPARC Europe was one of the signatories and I am writing to you now to explain a little more about the topic and why SPARC Europe signed the letter to STM.

The background: licensing knowledge
SPARC Europe shares with other organisations working for a truly open research literature the vision of a broad knowledge commons created for the benefit of humanity as a whole. We see the research literature as a part of that commons, freely and fully integrated into it, forming a precious knowledge resource, a possession of all humanity, that can be used and re-used without hindrance to the benefit of any and all so long as copyright law is observed.

Such a system certainly requires a formal licensing procedure but the aim is for that to operate simply and smoothly, allowing and enabling legitimate re-use without hindrance. The Creative Commons (CC) licence set serves this purpose: it can, and is, used perfectly effectively on scholarly material. And the extension of CC licences to this scholarly subset of knowledge means that it can be seamlessly integrated into the wider body of knowledge, so that research outputs can be combined with other public resources in the creation of new knowledge.

What has STM contributed?
STM has developed and published a new set of licences that it will promote for use with scholarly content. Some of these licences appear to be trying to help the re-use of material by other scholars. They would, however, make it more difficult to combine scholarly outputs with other public knowledge resources. Moreover, these licences do not comply with the Open Definition, and they confuse the situation by purporting to offer permissions that are not even needed under copyright law.

Why has the global coalition of open knowledge organisations called for STM to withdraw these licences?
The main reason for asking STM to withdraw its model licence set is that **there is no need for any additional licences**: we have all we need to make scholarly content re-usable and of maximum value to the world using the set of Creative Commons (CC) licences currently available. Additional licences specifically for scholarly content confuse and complicate the situation.

As well, there is the possibility that these licences could be incompatible with existing CC licences, a state of affairs that could not be less helpful to opening up the research literature.

Will STM withdraw its licence set?
STM has responded to the call from the global coalition setting out its case.

It first suggests that CC licences are not suitable for academic content. This is a strange case to make since CC licences are designed to be used for many types of content, academic work included. Moreover, CC licences have been used by academic publishers since their inception and indeed are in use by most members of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), which recommends the adoption of CC licences as a matter of good practice.

STM also suggests that authors could switch to CC licences even if they have used STM model licences in the first place to licence their work. Possibly they could, though compatibility may need to be tested in law, jurisdiction by jurisdiction. This potential complexity is clearly not advantageous to scholarly communication.

What is the best licensing framework for scholarly material?
The optimal licensing system for scholarly materials should have the following characteristics. It should be:

  • Easily understandable
  • Simple to use, and machine-readable
  • Promote access to and re-use of scholarly outputs
  • Able to offer all the options necessary for scholars to choose appropriate licensing conditions for their work

**We have all these characteristics in the existing set of Creative Commons licences** which, moreover, works across the non-scholarly knowledge body too.

SPARC Europe encourages its members to explain and promote the use of CC licences to their patrons and to eschew the special set of academic licences from STM which serve only to muddy the waters.