A license to please

Today PLOS joins with 58 other organizations in calling for the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical (STM) Publishers to withdraw their model licenses and work with the community within the Creative Commons framework to build a scholarly literature that is compatible with wider human knowledge on the web.

As the 10th Wikimania Conference in London this week bears witness, millions of people in different locations and jurisdictions are using open tools, open software and Open Access content to interact with different types of information. Wikipedia alone receives 21 billion hits and is being added to at a rate of 30,000,000 words each month. But it is not just Wikipedia that is being adopted enthusiastically, there are online educational resources becoming available all over the world. This thirst for knowledge – and for knowledge creation – comes from every sector of society and every corner of the globe and represents an unparalleled opportunity for the academic literature. It’s an opportunity to open up scholarly content to a much wider community, for it to reach audiences where those audiences are based and to tap into the cultures that will facilitate its reuse. It’s an opportunity to democratize the scholarly literature – to enable the many rather than the few.

But this is not something the scholarly community can do alone. Such a vision requires an infrastructure that enables people and computers to talk to each other wherever they are based. It requires platforms, services and communities that work together regardless of their geographic location or legal jurisdiction.  We can’t do this alone, but the academic community can make it easier. And ensuring that the licenses controlling scholarly content enable use and reuse is one part of that. The Creative Commons Licenses already provide a common legal framework to ensure that copyright owners can let others share and integrate their work with other human knowledge.  They are being used not just for Wikipedia and Wikimedia but for education and policy and for music and images. People are adopting them as a global standard because they are widely understood, straightforward to implement and machine readable. They are adopting them because they work.

The model open access licenses recently released by the STM are not a global standard. And unlike the more liberal Creative Commons licences, even the most liberal STM licences restrict some form of commercial or derivative reuse. No STM-licensed work can be used on Wikipedia.

But worse than that, they are incompatible. The STM licences are legally complex, with confusing and undefined terminology. They are claimed to interoperate with the Creative Commons licences, but the restrictions they impose mean that they are barely compatible with the most restrictive Creative Commons licence (which permits neither commercial nor derivative reuse). Consequently, authors who wish to create new works licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence (or indeed any other public licence) will not be able to use content from work published under any of the STM licences.

PLOS and other Open Access publishers such as Hindawi,  funders such as the Wellcome Trust and bodies such as the World Health Organization all favor a Creative Commons license that permits liberal reuse, including unrestricted text and data mining, while ensuring that an author’s work is properly attributed (CC BY). Signing the letter published today calling for the withdrawal of the STM model licenses is not an endorsement of the more restrictive Creative Commons licenses; it is an endorsement of the Creative Commons framework, of a global standard that is already established.

Collectively we have an opportunity to open up research content to the wider world. Some will not want to, or be able to move as fast, but we should at least adopt a common legal framework. The Creative Commons licenses are not perfect but they have been shown to work and have been applied to over a billion objects from hundreds of millions of creators. They provide the flexibility for a wide range of options from the restricted to the fully open. But above all they provide a framework that we can all work within that will make it easier to connect with the wider world of the web.

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