Bethany Nowviskie

  • Published: May 11th, 2011
  • Category: higher ed
  • Comments: 31

why, oh why, CC-BY?

Tags: ,

Last night, I joined the tail-end of an interesting conversation on Twitter about the utility of NC (“non-commercial”) clauses in Creative Commons licensing. Some time ago, I quietly dropped the non-commercial specification from my own blog and Flickr stream, switching my license from CC-BY-NC to CC-BY. Yesterday’s exchange of viewpoints has prompted me to explain why.

The CC-BY-NC license I first adopted permitted attributed use of my content but restricted that use (without further, explicit permission from me) to non-commercial republication venues. CC-BY, on the other hand, means I’m only asking that my name appear in some way attached to my words (or images, or other intellectual property). US law asserts that the moment I have “fixed” my thought into some expression I have tacitly copyrighted it — meaning that any republication (beyond fair use and without my explicit permission) is pretty much a form of theft. Unattributed re-use of my intellectual property would be plagiarism.

Baby, I’m givin’ it away.

When it comes to scholarly communication, I stand in Jeffersonian discomfort with the notion of “monopolies of invention” (a subject I’ve addressed before). In the humanities — where we are constantly and rightly concerned with our ability to reach broad audiences and articulate the public good of investment in the liberal arts — assertions of exclusive ownership may well “produce more embarrassment than advantage to society.” Commercial exploitation? We should be so lucky.

So, why did I adopt an NC designation, only to change it? I had had a fuzzy notion about non-commercial use being more in line with the impulses that were driving me toward the “copyleft” approach of Creative Commons in the first place. That is, I wanted my information to be free — so what could be more perfect than asking others to distribute it freely?

On further reflection — prompted in part by the experience of my colleagues in trying to reconcile disparate licenses of well-intentioned contributors to the Hacking the Academy project — I came to understand that my “non-commercial” requirement was actually weakening the Commons.

First, I realized that I was discouraging or at least slowing down any possible re-use of my content by requiring that people ask my permission. Yes, there is, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick muses, something unsettling in deliberately relinquishing control over one’s intellectual property — especially for academics working within a system that almost only rewards individual achievement, and which teaches us to polish our ideas until they are bright and perfect gems, to be carefully and deliberately placed for best effect. But I could only (and that with some difficulty) imagine edge cases in which I would not automatically grant permission for re-use of content I had published here. Which led me to my second conclusion.

More restrictive licenses, for me — for the kind of thing I write and work on, for the paths and audiences I imagine for that work, and for the kind of #alt-ac scholar I want personally to be — read like progressive degrees of arrogance. This goes beyond an admittedly flip, knee-jerk “we should be so lucky” reaction. Does an NC license imply that I believe my content to be of recognizable commercial value of which I should be in full and solitary control? (Well, I did blog it, after all.) No, it’s more the sheer, unthinking presumption I now see in well-meaning “NC” and even viral “SA” (share-alike) restrictions.

I’m just not bright enough to presume to predict financial aspects of future publishing models in the humanities. Limiting my default scope to non-commercial ventures seems presumptuous and naïve. Current presses and projects I admire are struggling, and if any of my content, bundled in some form that can support its own production by charging a fee, helps humanities publishers to experiment with new ways forward — well, that’s precisely why I CC-licensed it in the first place. I also want to minimize my participation in any system that could lead to an “orphaned works” problem. Perhaps there’s a very clear answer to the question of who gives permission on my behalf if I am dead or incapacitated and my heirs are unreachable or unresponsive. My guess, however — since I am no writer of importance — is that, in my absence, any little roadbump on the path to permission will virtually assure my content not be republished. If it’s already becoming evident that more restrictive enfranchisements slow down re-use of Creative Commons-licensed content, and that US copyright law is geared to support the interests of big business — how hard do we expect future small-potatoes humanities editors to try?

However, it would also be naïve to assert that no-one stands to get rich on humanities content. George Williams is right to cite price-gouging in textbook publishing (and I would add bundled journal subscriptions) as a factor that gives pause to potential droppers of the NC restriction. But (and here I’m back to questioning the ethos-to-ego ratio of the humanities scholar), do I really think that drips and drabs of my own content will make a difference in these vast machines? That for-profit or cost-recovery textbook will certainly go on without me — and that means without my work and whatever good its inclusion might have done, for me professionally and for the spheres of knowledge and praxis I want to advance.

To take a more pragmatic stance, CC BY-ND is about as much control as I’d ever want to exert in those situations. The “ND” stands for “no derivatives,” meaning that — if attached to a CC-BY license — future publishers (commercial and non-commerical) would be able to re-use my work only if it is clearly attributed to me and not altered in any way. This would be my opportunity to contribute a coherent thought to a collection and come closer to assurance (thus addressing one of my imagined “edge cases”) that my words are not twisted in support of a project or ideology with which I’d disagree.

Fundamentally, I’ve concluded that CC-BY is more in line with the practical and ideological goals of the Commons, and the little contribution I want to make to it. I still have a residual clingyness about my words that I can only assume comes from eight years spent in pursuit of a doctoral degree. I’m getting over it, though, and am even more cavalier about my non-textual work — software, interface design, and sketches or photographs. If Flickr would allow me to remove the “attribution” clause from my snapshots, I’d be giving them away even more freely than my words. I’d be placing most of them explicitly in the public domain.

For humanities scholarship, and for the kind of institutional and administrative mutterings I publish here, I truly believe — there’s no where to go but out.

Tags: ,

31 Responses to “why, oh why, CC-BY?”

  1. Brett Bobley
    on May 11th, 2011
    @ 10:25pm

    It reminds me of a Henry Rollins spoken word show I was at many years ago. Some guy in the audience was holding a tape recorder and he asked Henry if he could record the show. Henry said, “Sure! You can even try to sell it, if you want. Trust me, if *I* can’t make any money selling tapes of me talking, I’m sure you can’t either. But feel free to try.”

  2. Sheepy
    on May 11th, 2011
    @ 11:04pm

    I find it interesting that you’re more likely to use BY-ND than BY-NC, because I feel completely oppositely–probably because when I think CC, I think of artwork rather than textwork. I *want* people to remix and repurpose and re-whatever my work, but I *don’t* want Hot Topic to profit by making t-shirts or temporary tattoos of my designs. (e.g )

  3. kintopp
    on May 12th, 2011
    @ 3:44am

    This all makes very good sense to me as well, in particular for academic work (I’m still waiting for National Geographic to call me for my holiday snapshots..). I particularly take your point about not wanting to participate in a system that could lead to yet more orphaned works.

    On a practical matter, one thing to keep in mind is that while CC licenses can be changed they can’t be revoked. Thus if one manages a blog or a journal or some similar medium with a large number of extant articles then the new license can only take effect going forward (at least, that’s my reading of the CC FAQs).

  4. Bethany Nowviskie
    on May 12th, 2011
    @ 9:06am

    Hey, Arno — on the topic of changing/revoking CC licenses, you’re right, but only in a sense. Once I’ve applied a CC license, I can’t later stop someone from distributing or using that content under the license through which they obtained it. In my case, the change was to a less restrictive license, so I had no qualms in making the shift. Even if I had wanted to go to a more restrictive one, that would have been fine, so long as I didn’t try to track down and restrict use of my stuff, retroactively.

    Sheepy — I do think there’s a big difference (and therefore valid default stance to take!) between creative works and what I’m calling “scholarly communication” here. I was trying to be careful in the post to clarify that I’m addressing pretty subjective stuff: the kind of work I produce in the context of the kind of career I’m fashioning. I take your point about ND (noDerivs) and mashup. In the particular edge case I was imagining, an ND clause would be the way for the writer of an essay to make sure the whole piece was included in a collection, or none of it. (I wouldn’t always do that, myself, but could imagine times when a scholar would want to make sure, say, that conciliatory paragraph 2 was always included after inflammatory paragraph 1.) Generally, I’m for people slicing and dicing my stuff as desired!

    Anyway, all of this is worth talking about! Hoping for more comments here.

  5. Tom Elliott
    on May 12th, 2011
    @ 12:01pm


    This is the same sort of process of thinking that eventually led to the release of papyrological texts and information under CC-BY on They started out thinking CC-BY-NC.

  6. Friends Don’t Let Friends CC-BY | CopyVillain
    on May 12th, 2011
    @ 12:23pm

    […] commons. This point of view seems best summarized by Bethany Nowviskie in her blog post “why, oh why, CC-BY.” In her post, Nowviskie notes that the CC-BY license allows for the broadest possible […]

  7. Euromachs Blog » Blog Archive » Web Readings Weekly Roundup (17th May)
    on May 17th, 2011
    @ 3:29pm

    […] why, oh why, CC-BY? […]

  8. Welcome to the Cultural Heritage Informatics Fieldschool | Cultural Heritage Informatics Fieldschool
    on May 30th, 2011
    @ 9:49pm

    […] of Virginia Library and Associate Director of the Scholarly Communication Institute) wrote a thoughtful piece about why she was switching the license on her blog and Flickr stream from CC-BY-NC to CC-BY. […]

  9. Lisa
    on Jun 8th, 2011
    @ 8:16pm

    Yes to you Beth, and
    though I might shoulda called it copyright rather than IP

  10. Moulting: Changing my CMS | Stéfan Sinclair
    on Jul 19th, 2011
    @ 10:28pm

    […] I’ve licensed the content with a very liberal BY (attribution) Creative Commons license, as I’ve been convinced by Bethany’s thoughts on the matter. […]

  11. Owning up the Praxis Program | Alex Gil
    on Aug 29th, 2011
    @ 9:55pm

    […] License: I vote wholeheartedly that we offer everything we make open-access, open-source through a Creative Commons Attribution license. Bethany provides excellent rationale in this post. […]

  12. ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education
    on Sep 8th, 2011
    @ 3:02pm

    […] How will the site be licensed? On Creative Commons licensing, see Bethany Nowviskie. […]

  13. Tools, Techniques & Culture / Winter 2011 University of Victoria / Digital Humanities One Fifty / Week 4: Collaboration & Workflow
    on Sep 11th, 2011
    @ 1:38am

    […] If Scholars in the Humanities Worked Together, in a Lab?” by Cathy Davidson, and (2) “Why, Oh Why, CC-By” by Bethany […]

  14. Outline | English 507 (Spring 2012 / Sayers)
    on Jan 2nd, 2012
    @ 1:10pm

    […] (1) Fitzpatrick, “Peer Review” (from draft version of Planned Obsolescence), (2) Nowviskie, “Why, Oh Why, CC-BY,” and “Where Credit Is Due,” and (3) MLA, “The Evaluation of Digital […]

  15. Blackouts, copycratism and intellectual property « Stuart Dunn's Blog
    on Jan 19th, 2012
    @ 12:24pm

    […] set in the west, but our profiles, and thus our all-important impact factors, will rise. Witness Bethany Nowviskie’s thoughtful intervention a little less than a year ago, or the recent request from the journal Digital Humanities Quarterly […]

  16. don’t circle the wagons « Bethany Nowviskie
    on Mar 4th, 2012
    @ 3:32am

    […] too pressed by other deadlines to agree to write anything new — so I granted the editor my (not-strictly-necessary) permission to reprint a couple of old blog […]

  17. Acknowledgments on Syllabi « triproftri
    on Mar 8th, 2012
    @ 3:45pm

    […] assigning a Creative Commons license to your syllabi, as suggested by Spiro in the above slide. Bethany Nowviskie writes about this in terms of blogs and scholarly communication, but the reasoning is just as sound for your […]

  18. How to Fork a Syllabus on GitHub - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education
    on Apr 12th, 2012
    @ 9:10am

    […] it a license. I like the Creative Commons BY license. (Here is a post by Bethany Nowviskie explaining why scholars should use that license.) Whatever license you pick, though, it is […]

  19. Why CC-BY just isn’t good enough « Lisa's (Online) Teaching Blog
    on Jun 11th, 2012
    @ 5:05pm

    […] CC-BY isn’t good enough. We can’t any longer suppose that our work will not be of financial gain to someone, someday, in a new publishing model. And we must recognize it’s no longer really about […]

  20. Opening the Humanities Part 2: Contexts | Digital Scholarship in the Humanities
    on Dec 5th, 2012
    @ 2:26pm

    […] alike). CC-BY upholds the scholarly practice of acknowledging sources (see Bethany Nowviskie’s “why, oh why, CC-BY?” for a smart discussion of the rationale for adopting this license). There are two principal […]

  21. Jacky Hood
    on Apr 3rd, 2013
    @ 8:23pm

    Open source software would have died on the vine if it required NC use. Instructors are nervous about adopting NC materials wondering if Google ads on their websites or charging tuition for the class constitute commercial use.

    ND should be rejected for anything other than small, artistic items. Textbooks and course ware that must be used ‘all or nothing’ are not practical. Instructors need to be able to move small parts into their learning management systems and their slides. They must be able to modify assignments and projects to fit their students and their teaching style.

  22. Teach the Web | Week 3: the Open Web
    on May 14th, 2013
    @ 2:45am

    […] why, oh why, CC-BY? […]

  23. Welcome to the 2013 Cultural Heritage Informatics Fieldschool | 2013 Cultural Heritage Informatics Fieldschool
    on May 24th, 2013
    @ 12:27pm

    […] of Virginia Library and Associate Director of the Scholarly Communication Institute) wrote a thoughtful piece about why she was switching the license on her blog and Flickr stream from CC-BY-NC to CC-BY. […]

  24. Values | Literature Geek by Amanda Visconti (@Literature_Geek)
    on Dec 2nd, 2013
    @ 10:37pm

    […] reuse (and although Creative Commons licenses aren’t appropriate for code meant to be run, Bethany Nowviskie’s argument for not keeping a non-commercial requirement on your work is pretty convincing). As a corollary to […]

  25. opensourceguinea
    on Dec 29th, 2013
    @ 11:09am

    The Berlin based Telekommunists have a nice critique of this NC clause, based on “Venture communism” and CopyFarLeft, heh

  26. Copyleft, IP Rights, and Digital Humanities Dissertations | Literature Geek by Amanda Visconti (@Literature_Geek)
    on Jan 4th, 2014
    @ 1:43pm

    […] information that can be appropriately licensed by CC, digital humanists Bethany Nowviskie and Dan Cohen have both written convincing arguments for licensing your work using CC0, aka CC […]

  27. Copyleft, IP Rights, and Digital Humanities Dissertations | Literature Geek
    on Apr 19th, 2014
    @ 8:08pm

    […] information that can be appropriately licensed by CC, digital humanists Bethany Nowviskie and Dan Cohen have both written convincing arguments for licensing your work using CC0, aka CC […]

  28. Values | Literature Geek
    on Apr 19th, 2014
    @ 8:08pm

    […] reuse (and although Creative Commons licenses aren’t appropriate for code meant to be run, Bethany Nowviskie’s argument for not keeping a non-commercial requirement on your work is pretty convincing). As a corollary to […]

  29. open and shut « Bethany Nowviskie
    on Feb 14th, 2015
    @ 6:03pm

    […] a version of it on my blog, which is governed by the minimally-restrictive CC-BY license I’ve described elsewhere. (In short: a Creative Commons Attribution license allows non-commercial or commercial re-use of my […]

  30. Read your contract: Being OA isn’t enough | Information Wants To Be Free
    on Mar 18th, 2015
    @ 12:57pm

    […] of scholarly publishing? Update: Just after posting this, Micah Vandergrift shared with me Bethany Nowviskie’s post which came to a very different conclusion about Creative Commons licensing. I think that’s […]

  31. In the Library with the Lead Pipe » Open for Business – Why In the Library with the Lead Pipe is Moving to CC-BY Licensing
    on Apr 22nd, 2015
    @ 4:14pm

    […] Bethany Nowviskie’s blog post, Why, oh why, CC-BY? […]

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Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.