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Why Restrictions on Reuse Are Sometimes Important

English: Track and Fences The track gives acce...

English: Track and Fences The track gives access to the end of the crofts farthest from the houses in Suainebost, and the fences are supposed to be sheep-proof. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Copyright provides the owners of intellectual property a variety of rights and protections. We often think first and foremost of copyright as being tied to earning money on the sale of works, either written or performed. This is how most people interact with copyright, since they are consumers of content rather than producers of content . . . for sale. I added the last two words with emphasis because copyright applies equally to content that is not for sale, as most readers of this blog are aware. The same understanding is not true of the vast majority of people who regularly write blog entries, post pictures to Instagram or Flickr, or contribute to the wealth of other social media sites. I’ll return to this point a bit later.

Recently, I was asked about my own organization’s copyright policy and was asked to defend the restrictions we place, particularly, as they relate to reuse and remixing. Below is some of my response:

There is a strong reason for standards not being “truly open” by your definition. In the standards world, if everyone were to remix or redevelop standards however they saw fit, than there wouldn’t be a core thing that could be called a standard. One could think of a variety of ways in which this create problem. For example in our community, one can claim compliance with for example DOIs or ISBN numbers, but without complying with the standard, there is no assurance of uniqueness, nor its functionality in the larger DOI or ISBN systems. Standards can be flexible, or more lax, but all should have minimum levels of compliance to ensure both interoperability and trustworthiness. Furthermore, if anyone were able to re-draft a standard without the controlling involvement of the community, there could very easily be forking and lead to non-compatible solutions. This would be of particular concern if the standards development organization were to release a non-backwards-compatible new version of a standard.

Even the W3C and IETF, which are notoriously open, still retain control over the baseline recommendations. Specifically, W3C will not allow modification or derivative works, republication of excerpts or un-approved translations. IETF RFC’s are copyrighted with “All rights reserved.”

Of course, such copyright terms do not preclude extensions and further development are out of the question. Take Dublin Core for example. It has been extended tremendously, with various profiles, for a variety of communities and needs. That doesn’t mean that the base standard of DC has been changed.

I often joke that standards emergencies are rare, but this is not necessarily the case for standards that have safety implications. Think about the potential dangers if people don’t adhere to building codes, water purity specifications, or airline manufacturing standards. Additionally, standards get regularly reviewed and updated. If someone were to republish a specification and then not publish the updated versions, there could be both confusion and interoperability issues. Or in the case of the safety standards above, some critical new safety requirement could be missed.

While I speak here specifically about publications in my own domain — standards — one can think of a variety of other fields where unfettered reuse, republication and translations could create significant problems or dangers. One might envision the same problems occurring with health publications or data, economic data, political information, or a range of contentious or potentially dangerous information if it were available for unfettered reuse or republication.

Earlier this week, PLOS, SPARC, and the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) collaborated to develop a guide to the spectrum of open access options entitled How Open Is It?  The current draft is open for public comment until Monday, October 8, 2012. The main component of the document is a table listing the various types of openness attributes that a content object may have. According to the document, these include: readership rights; reuse rights; copyrights ownership; author posting rights; reposting rights; machine readability rights.  Each of these rights are then described on a scale of “open” versus “closed” access.

This document helps to clarify the variety of complex levels by which something could be available or reusable, which vary tremendously by people who use the term “open access.” The variety of meanings of “open access” has been a point of confusion, and defining these terms is a useful piece of work. Developing a baseline terminology the community can use to clarify exactly what is meant by “open” would be a useful contribution to the discussion. There is also some potential work about communicating the metadata related to open access currently being explored among a group of publishing and open access. More information about that will follow in another upcoming post.

On the PLOS Blog, a post “How Open Is It? – Request for Public Comment” by David Knutson describes the goals and confusion that this project is trying to address. Quoting his post:

This OA guide is aimed toward a wide audience of researchers, authors, and policy-makers.  Your feedback will help us more precisely define OA across a number of categories.  The goals of the guide are to:
•    Move the conversation from “Is It Open Access?” to “How Open Is It?”
•    Clarify the definition of OA
•    Standardize terminology
•    Illustrate a continuum of “more open” versus “less open”
•    Enable people to compare and contrast publications and policies
•    Broaden the understanding of OA to a wider audience

Whatever the outcome and shape of this document, there does need to be a better understanding of the nuance of copyright control and the value of different levels for different purposes. Few authors or content creators really understand these nuances or the implications of their decisions regarding the rights they retain or, more often, sign away. This is particularly true for people who contribute content onto social media.

One interesting story in this regard relates to my father-in-law and some photos that he posted onto Flickr under a CC-0 license. A few of the pictures that he posted were used by NBC as a background image for their Olympics coverage. My father-in-law is quite a proponent for open content distribution, so he was pleased with the “Olympic win,” as he described it on his blog. There are a few downsides for this, though he doesn’t necessarily see it this way. The first is the fact that he wasn’t paid for this work. The second is that NBC could have used the images in a way that was affiliated with a cause, or in a manner that was inappropriate (although it’s hard to see how one could do that with ice crystals, it could have been different if there were images of people or other art). Finally, there is the larger cultural issue of the availability of so much free content. Each time I am approached about the reuse of one of my own images on Flickr, I consider all of the stock photographers who are finding it harder and harder to make a living because I, and many millions more like me, freely share photographs. I am generally happy about the reuse, but I am not trying to sell my images – though it would be nice if I could! The same is true of the many variety of other content people share on social media sites. Ownership rules that apply to that content isn’t always as clear as one might think.

Generally, there isn’t a good understanding by the overall community about these copyright issues. This is just as true among the people for whom scholarly communications is a key part of their careers as it is for the general populous. While someone might view open redistribution or reuse, remixing, or adapting work as a good thing, there are a variety of potential reasons why one might not want that to take place. Often, content creators are not as imaginative about the use and application of their works as others may be (a point proponents often make to reinforce the value of open remixing). Frequently, one might not understand the implications of the decision taken to freely distribute something until long after the decision was taken to release a work without restrictions. This could be a benefit or a detriment to the original copyright holder. Similarly, society as a whole might not realize the benefits or detriments until much later. And unfortunately, some decisions can’t be undone.

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About Todd A Carpenter

Todd is the Executive Director of the National Information Standards (NISO). He is focused on facilitating information exchange via standards, technology and business best practices within the US and internationally.


15 thoughts on “Why Restrictions on Reuse Are Sometimes Important

  1. You might want to amend the figure caption – Suainebost is in the Western Isles off the coast of Scotland.

    Posted by Mary Purton | Oct 1, 2012, 8:16 am
    • Also, regarding the picture, I don’t think that “Photo Credit: Wikipedia” is a proper attribution statement. The picture is hosted on Wikicommons (not Wikipedia), and it lists an author there: Anne Burgess.

      Posted by Jeffrey Beall | Oct 1, 2012, 11:11 am
  2. I think you are right on target here. I have been arguing along similar lines that the OA community should not take the BOAI definition, reflected in the CC-BY license, as the “true” definition of OA. I have given reasons for why scholars, e.g., might want to maintain control over translation and republication of their works using a CC-BY-NC license instead, in among other places this exchange with an advocate of the BOAI approach:

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Oct 1, 2012, 1:08 pm
  3. So your problem is that although somebody did something with your father’s photographs that he was perfectly happy with, somebody else MIGHT have done something with somebody else’s photographs that they WEREN’T happy with?

    Colour me unconvinced.

    Posted by corio37 | Oct 2, 2012, 5:28 pm
    • My point regarding the story of my father-in-law is not what transpired in his particular case or his reaction. The point is that when a content creator puts their content up online without restriction of reuse, one can not envision the potential reuses that content will be put toward. Those reuses might be appealing (as was the case of my father-in-law), they might be something to which one is indifferent, or they might be quite upsetting. If you don’t care, there aren’t any conceivable downsides, and one isn’t going to be offended by any reuse, by all means I encourage the release content under a CC-0 or CC-BY license. I use CC-BY frequently for *some* my own images, although I use it selectively and with intention. However, I posit that most content creators have good reasons why placing on restrictions of reuse are a good thing. This is specifically the case in my specific domain and I expect that many in the scholarly community would likely be interested in the same protections.

      Posted by Todd A Carpenter | Oct 2, 2012, 7:11 pm
  4. I have a question, what is the difference between open access CC-BY-NC and toll-gate access copyright (e.g. of Elsevier). Are they the same, or is one worse than the other (I mean the re-use rights, not the access difference)? My sense if that is CC-BY-NC is not worse than “regular” copyright, I would prefer to have it as the OA norm than to have CC-BY as the norm (authors could individually select this option if they really wished). Any thoughts?

    Posted by RMS | Oct 3, 2012, 6:41 am
  5. It would be interesting to hear your arguments as to why copyright is the right tool, a necessary tool or even a sensible tool regarding the “potential dangers if people don’t adhere to building codes [etc.]” around standards texts?

    Can copyright make builders magically adhere to standards? Does copyright really cover any of your other worries?

    Posted by andersnorgaard | Oct 7, 2012, 5:30 pm
    • Have you, by any chance, read this document


      Do you have any comments?

      Posted by andersnorgaard | Oct 8, 2012, 5:24 pm
      • Anders, you’re confusing things. This document is about trademarks, not copyright. Flickr’s trademark (“Flickr”) is not put at risk by having non-copyrighted materials in their database. Copyright and trademark are quite unrelated. KFC doesn’t copyright much, but it trademarks a lot of chicken. You don’t need copyright to trademark, and you don’t need trademark to copyright (ask any author). What point are you trying to make?

        Posted by Kent Anderson | Oct 8, 2012, 5:49 pm
        • Did you read the document? Do you see no relevance of eg. page 3?

          Posted by andersnorgaard | Oct 9, 2012, 11:00 am
          • I read that section. I still don’t quite get your point. Is it that the CC licenses can be made to be even more restrictive and burdensome on authors than copyright transfer? If that’s your point, I’m beginning to agree.

            Posted by Kent Anderson | Oct 9, 2012, 11:57 am


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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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