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It’s not easy being clear…

26 May 2009 14 Comments

There has been some debate going backwards and forwards over the past few weeks about licensing, peoples expectations, and the extent to which researchers can be expected to understand, or want to understand, the details of legal terms, licensing and other technical minutiae. It is reasonable for scientific researchers not to wish to get into the details. One of the real successes of Creative Commons has been to provide a relatively small set of reasonably clear terms that enable people to express their wishes about what people can do with their work. But even here there is the potential for significant confusion as demonstrated by the work that CC is doing on the perception of what “non commercial” means.

The end result of this is two-fold. Firstly people are genuinely confused about what to do and a result they give up. In giving up there is often an unspoken assumption that “people will understand what I want/mean”. Two examples yesterday illustrated exactly how misguided this can be and showed the importance of being clear, and thinking about, what you want people to do with your content and information.

The first was pointed out by Paulo Nuin who linked to a post on The Matrix Cookbook, a blog and PDF containing much useful information on matrix transforms. The post complained that Amazon were selling a Kindle version of the PDF, apparently without asking permission or even bothering to inform the authors. So far, so big corporation. But digging a little deeper I went to the front page of the site and found this interesting “license”:

“License? No, there is no license. It is provided as a knowledge sharing project for anyone to use. But if you use it in an academic or research like context, we would love to be cited appropriately.”

Now I would intepret this as meaning that the authors had intended to place the work in the public domain. They clearly felt that while educational and research re-use was fine that commercial use was not. I would guess that someone at Amazon read the statement “there is no license” and felt that it was free to re-use. It seems odd that they wouldn’t email the authors to notify them but if it were public domain there is no requirement to. Rude, yes. Theft? Well it depends on your perspective. Going back today the authors have made a significant change to the “license”:

It is provided as a knowledge sharing project for anyone to use. But if you use it in an academic or research like context, we would love to be cited appropriately. And NO, you are not allowed to make money on it by reselling The Matrix Cookbook in any form or shape.

Had the authors made the content CC-BY-NC then their intentions would have been much clearer. My personal belief is that an NC license would be counter-productive (meaning the work couldn’t be used for teaching at a fee charging college or for research funded by a commercial sponsor for instance) but the point of the CC licenses is to give people these choices. What is important is that people make those choices and make them clear.

The second example related to identity. As part of an ongoing discussion involving online commenting genereg, a Friendfeed user, linked to their blog which included their real name. Mr Gunn, the nickname used by Dr William Gunn online wrote a blog post in which he referred to genereg’s contribution by linking to their blog from their real name [subsequently removed on request]. I probably would have done the same, wanting to ascribe the contribution clearly to the “real person” so they get credit for it. Genereg objected to this feeling that as their real name wasn’t directly in that conversational context it was inappropriate to use it.

So in my view, “Genereg” was a nickname that someone was happy to have connected with their real name, while in their view this was inappropriate. No-one is right or wrong here, we are evolving the rules of conduct more or less as we go and frankly, identity is a mess. But this wasn’t clear to me or to Mr Gunn. I am often uncomfortable with trying to tell whether a specific person who has linked two apparently separate identities is happy with that link being public, has linked the two by mistake, or just regards one as an alias. And you can’t ask in public forum can you?

What links these, and this week’s other fracas, is confusion over people’s expectations. The best way to avoid this is to be as clear as you possibly can. Don’t assume that everyone thinks the same way that you do. And definitely don’t assume that what is obvious to you is obvious to everyone else. When it comes to content, make a clear statement of your expectations and wishes, preferably using a widely recognized and understood licenses. If you’re reading this at OWW you should be seeing my nice shiny new cc0 waiver in the right hand navbar (I haven’t figured how to get it into the RSS feed yet). Most of my slidesets at Slideshare are CC-BY-SA. I’d prefer them to be CC-BY but most include images with CC-BY-SA licenses which (try to make sure) I respect. Overall I try to make the work I generate as widely re-usable as possible and aim to make that as clear as possible.

There are no such tools to make clear statements about how you wish your identity to be treated (and perhaps there should be). But a plain english statement on the appropriate profile page might be useful “I blog under a pseudonym because…and I don’t want my identity revealed”…”Bunnykins is the Friendfeed handle of Professor Serious Person”. Consider whether what you are doing is sending mixed messages or potentially confusing. Personally I like to keep things simple so I just use my real name or variants of it. But that is clearly not for everyone.

Above all, try to express clearly what you expect and wish to happen. Don’t expect others necessarily to understand where you’re coming from. It is very easy for one person’s polite and helpful to be another person’s deeply offensive. When you put something online, think about how you want people to use it, think about how you don’t want people to use it (and remember you may need to balance the allowing of one against the restricting of the other) and make those as clear as you possibly can, where possible using a statement or license that is widely recognized and has had some legal attention at some point like the CC licenses, cc0 waiver, or the PDDL. Clarity helps everyone. If we get this wrong we may end up with a web full of things we can’t use.

And before anyone else gets in to tell me I’ve made plenty of unjustified, and plain wrong, assumptions about other people’s views before. Pot. Kettle. Black. Welcome to being human.


  • “They clearly felt that while educational and research re-use was fine that commercial use was not.”

    I disagree: from the wording, that’s not clear at all to me. I would have assumed, as Amazon seems to have, that it was in the Public Domain — which means, do with it as you please. I think most people would agree that Amazon was rude not to cite, but as far as I can see they did nothing illegal and nothing to violate the terms of such licensing as the authors applied.

    You are right about intent, of course, as the new license makes clear, but they are shit out of luck when it comes to the Amazon copy since the old license applies to that. You can always change licenses but items obtained under the old terms remain under those terms.

    Of course, if Amazon is canny about community engagement (or hell, just sensible about PR) they will come to some arrangement with the authors.

  • “They clearly felt that while educational and research re-use was fine that commercial use was not.”

    I disagree: from the wording, that’s not clear at all to me. I would have assumed, as Amazon seems to have, that it was in the Public Domain — which means, do with it as you please. I think most people would agree that Amazon was rude not to cite, but as far as I can see they did nothing illegal and nothing to violate the terms of such licensing as the authors applied.

    You are right about intent, of course, as the new license makes clear, but they are shit out of luck when it comes to the Amazon copy since the old license applies to that. You can always change licenses but items obtained under the old terms remain under those terms.

    Of course, if Amazon is canny about community engagement (or hell, just sensible about PR) they will come to some arrangement with the authors.

  • Wait on though — the whole reason for the existence of CCZero and the PDDL is that it’s harder than it looks to give up your copyright.

    So yeah, Amazon probably is in breach of copyright and would have to argue that the authors had given it up — which argument seems unlikely to hold up.

  • Wait on though — the whole reason for the existence of CCZero and the PDDL is that it’s harder than it looks to give up your copyright.

    So yeah, Amazon probably is in breach of copyright and would have to argue that the authors had given it up — which argument seems unlikely to hold up.

  • I’m going to have to start the process of changing my online identity, because when I defend, I’ll have to call myself Dr. Gunn, and I don’t know if I like that.

  • I’m going to have to start the process of changing my online identity, because when I defend, I’ll have to call myself Dr. Gunn, and I don’t know if I like that.

  • ‘t would be nice if there were a little badge for identity – I participate under RN-LI (real name – linked identity) or RN-no-link to institution) or P (psuedonym)… wouldn’t that be cool?

  • ‘t would be nice if there were a little badge for identity – I participate under RN-LI (real name – linked identity) or RN-no-link to institution) or P (psuedonym)… wouldn’t that be cool?

  • Bill, I agree, the issue with cc0/PDDL is about avoiding doubt though. Where the intent is clear to a “reasonable” person then I think you’d probably survive on that in court. Here the main point for me was that the authors said something that I would have intepreted as carte blanche but clearly in their own minds didn’t mean that. So whatever the legal status might be the end result was confusion.

    Mr Gunn, I thought you had defended? Now I’ll need to go back and edit the post…

  • Bill, I agree, the issue with cc0/PDDL is about avoiding doubt though. Where the intent is clear to a “reasonable” person then I think you’d probably survive on that in court. Here the main point for me was that the authors said something that I would have intepreted as carte blanche but clearly in their own minds didn’t mean that. So whatever the legal status might be the end result was confusion.

    Mr Gunn, I thought you had defended? Now I’ll need to go back and edit the post…

  • Chris Rusbridge

    Cameron, you wrote “My personal belief is that an NC license would be counter-productive (meaning the work couldn’t be used for teaching at a fee charging college or for research funded by a commercial sponsor for instance) …”. We have considered this at the DCC (which also currently uses a CC BY-NC-SA licence), and we think that under those conditions we would be perfectly happy to license the user separately, possibly after a negotiation of some kind. We realise that this means an extra, manual transaction, and it might not work well for data in terms of interoperability; it’s the kind of thing worth reviewing after a while, but so far seems perfectly viable.

    The cost in effort so far to us: nil. Lost use because of misunderstanding of the limitation? Unknown, I suppose!

    I agree that the CC licences, with their backing legal text based in many different jurisdictions (eg a different text in Scotland than in England, because of differences in contract law), are much better than any vague forms of words such as the Matrix Cookbook authors used. For example, does their second sentence negate their first, if authors quoting their work publish in (say) an Elsevier journal, as Elsevier would be making money reselling an extract from the Matrix Cookbook? (Note, I’m not asserting this negation, just indicating their might be ambiguity).

  • Chris Rusbridge

    Cameron, you wrote “My personal belief is that an NC license would be counter-productive (meaning the work couldn’t be used for teaching at a fee charging college or for research funded by a commercial sponsor for instance) …”. We have considered this at the DCC (which also currently uses a CC BY-NC-SA licence), and we think that under those conditions we would be perfectly happy to license the user separately, possibly after a negotiation of some kind. We realise that this means an extra, manual transaction, and it might not work well for data in terms of interoperability; it’s the kind of thing worth reviewing after a while, but so far seems perfectly viable.

    The cost in effort so far to us: nil. Lost use because of misunderstanding of the limitation? Unknown, I suppose!

    I agree that the CC licences, with their backing legal text based in many different jurisdictions (eg a different text in Scotland than in England, because of differences in contract law), are much better than any vague forms of words such as the Matrix Cookbook authors used. For example, does their second sentence negate their first, if authors quoting their work publish in (say) an Elsevier journal, as Elsevier would be making money reselling an extract from the Matrix Cookbook? (Note, I’m not asserting this negation, just indicating their might be ambiguity).

  • Chris, thanks for dropping by. I think there are three main reasons for avoiding non-commercial licenses.

    1) People not re-using because you have inadvertently limited their use. As you note there is the opportunity for individual relicensing.
    2) People using automated systems for large scale aggregation not using your material. In this case the costs of manually clearing special licenses aren’t worth the effort. As we move to an “intelligent” web this will start to become a serious problem. This is the technical problem that most worries me, that our ability to do this will be still born because of license issues.
    3) You limit the flow of money back into the commons by effectively dividing it into two parts, one where people can make money and one where people can’t. The one where people can’t will just wither away in all likelihood.

    You say it yourself. “Lost use….Unknown”. This is a classic tragedy of the anti-commons. It is probably feasible to put some reasonable bounds of the amount of money you lose as a result of enabling commercial re-use and in most cases this is pretty small amounts. We have no idea of the opportunity costs caused by restrictive licenses but the evidence appears to suggest that across the system the losses outweigh the potential gains (not necessarily to individual players though).

    In the end, by not putting materials into the commons you reduce the rate at which we are creating this new economy and enabling business models that work in it. This economy can only work if transaction costs for rights negotiation are near zero and by using CC-BY-NC you actually raise transaction costs for commercial users. Not a problem on single transactions but if you’re talking about single transactions then how much money are you really going to make on them anyway? The money is in volume.

    The Open Knowledge Definition explicitly excludes non-commercial terms because they have this effect of “splitting” the commons. Explaining why this is bad to corporations and individuals trying to make money is going to be hard and take a while. But I would argue that for publicly funded institutions where the mandate is to maximise total economic impact, and not income (or at least I would hope that’s the mandate anyway) the argument for me is pretty clear.

    Blog post incubating on this – I don’t think I’ve got my arguments fully sorted but I think this is probably the most important debate of the next 12 months in some ways.

  • Chris, thanks for dropping by. I think there are three main reasons for avoiding non-commercial licenses.

    1) People not re-using because you have inadvertently limited their use. As you note there is the opportunity for individual relicensing.
    2) People using automated systems for large scale aggregation not using your material. In this case the costs of manually clearing special licenses aren’t worth the effort. As we move to an “intelligent” web this will start to become a serious problem. This is the technical problem that most worries me, that our ability to do this will be still born because of license issues.
    3) You limit the flow of money back into the commons by effectively dividing it into two parts, one where people can make money and one where people can’t. The one where people can’t will just wither away in all likelihood.

    You say it yourself. “Lost use….Unknown”. This is a classic tragedy of the anti-commons. It is probably feasible to put some reasonable bounds of the amount of money you lose as a result of enabling commercial re-use and in most cases this is pretty small amounts. We have no idea of the opportunity costs caused by restrictive licenses but the evidence appears to suggest that across the system the losses outweigh the potential gains (not necessarily to individual players though).

    In the end, by not putting materials into the commons you reduce the rate at which we are creating this new economy and enabling business models that work in it. This economy can only work if transaction costs for rights negotiation are near zero and by using CC-BY-NC you actually raise transaction costs for commercial users. Not a problem on single transactions but if you’re talking about single transactions then how much money are you really going to make on them anyway? The money is in volume.

    The Open Knowledge Definition explicitly excludes non-commercial terms because they have this effect of “splitting” the commons. Explaining why this is bad to corporations and individuals trying to make money is going to be hard and take a while. But I would argue that for publicly funded institutions where the mandate is to maximise total economic impact, and not income (or at least I would hope that’s the mandate anyway) the argument for me is pretty clear.

    Blog post incubating on this – I don’t think I’ve got my arguments fully sorted but I think this is probably the most important debate of the next 12 months in some ways.