Bethany Nowviskie

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

why, oh why, CC-BY?

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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.

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at http://nowviskie.org 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.