[okfn-discuss] On-line education is using a flawed Creative Commons license

Everton Zanella Alvarenga everton.alvarenga at okfn.org
Mon Nov 26 16:10:05 UTC 2012

An interesting text by Stallman, which I copy bellow and emphasize some
points in italic. We could improve the article on permission culture at
Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permission_culture

See also a recent post by Rufus

*On-line education is using a flawed Creative Commons

Prominent universities are using a nonfree license for their digital
educational works. That is bad already, but even worse, the license they
are using has a serious inherent problem.

When a work is made for doing a practical job, the users must have control
over the job, so they need to have control over the work. This applies to
software, and to educational works too. For the users to have this control,
they need certain freedoms (see
and we say the work is "free" (or "libre", to emphasize we are not talking
about price). For works that might be used in commercial contexts, the
requisite freedom includes commercial use, redistribution and modification.

Creative Commons publishes six principal licenses. Two are free/libre
licenses: the Sharealike license CC-BY-SA is a free/libre license with
copyleft <http://www.gnu.org/copyleft>, and the Attribution license (CC-BY)
is a free/libre license without copyleft. The other four are nonfree,
either because they don't allow modification (ND, Noderivs) or because they
don't allow commercial use (NC, Nocommercial).

In my view, nonfree licenses are ok for works of art/entertainment, or that
present personal viewpoints (such as this article itself). Those works
aren't meant for doing a practical job, so the argument about the users'
control does not apply. Thus, I do not object if they are published with
the CC-BY-NC-ND license, which allows only noncommercial redistribution of
exact copies.

Use of this license for a work does not mean that you can't possibly
publish that work commercially or with modifications. The license doesn't
give permission for that, but you could ask the copyright holder for
permission, perhaps offering a quid pro quo, and you might get it. It isn't
automatic, but it isn't impossible.

*However, two of the nonfree CC licenses lead to the creation of works that
can't in practice be published commercially, because there is no feasible
way to ask for permission. These are CC-BY-NC and CC-BY-NC-SA, the two CC
licenses that permit modification but not commercial use.*

*The problem arises because, with the Internet, people can easily (and
lawfully) pile one noncommercial modification on another. Over decades this
will result in works with contributions from hundreds or even thousands of

*What happens if you would like to use one of those works commercially? How
could you get permission? You'd have to ask all the substantial copyright
holders. Some of them might have contributed years before and be impossible
to find. Some might have contributed decades before, and might well be
dead, but their copyrights won't have died with them. You'd have to find
and ask their heirs, supposing it is possible to identify those. In
general, it will be impossible to clear copyright on the works that these
licenses invite people to make.*

*This is a form of the well-known "orphan works" problem, except
exponentially worse; when combining works that had many contributors, the
resulting work can be orphaned many times over before it is born.*

To eliminate this problem would require a mechanism that involves asking
_someone_ for permission (otherwise the NC condition turns into a nullity),
but doesn't require asking _all the contributors_ for permission. It is
easy to imagine such mechanisms; the hard part is to convince the community
that one such mechanisms is fair and reach a consensus to accept it.

I hope that can be done, but the CC-BY-NC and CC-BY-NC-SA licenses, as they
are today, should be avoided.

Unfortunately, one of them is used quite a lot. CC-BY-NC-SA, which allows
noncommercial publication of modified versions under the same license, has
become the fashion for online educational works. MIT's "Open Courseware"
got it stared, and many other schools followed MIT down the wrong path.
Whereas in software "open source" means "probably free, but I don't dare
talk about it so you'll have to check for yourself," in many online
education projects "open" means "nonfree for sure".

Even if the problem with CC-BY-NC-SA and CC-BY-NC is fixed, they still
won't be the right way to release educational works meant for doing
practical jobs. The users of these works, teachers and students, must have
control over the works, and that requires making them free. I urge Creative
Commons to state that works meant for practical jobs, including educational
resources and reference works as well as software, should be released under
free/libre licenses only.

*Educators, and all those who wish to contribute to on-line educational
works: please do not to let your work be made non-free. Offer your
assistance and text to educational works that carry free/libre licenses,
preferably copyleft licenses so that all versions of the work must respect
teachers' and students' freedom. Then invite educational activities to use
and redistribute these works on that freedom-respecting basis, if they
will. Together we can make education a domain of freedom.*

Everton Zanella Alvarenga (also Tom)
Open Knowledge Foundation Brasil
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