OSS Watch Relicensing: the case for Creative Commons

by Rowan Wilson on 10 September 2005 , last updated

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In the summer of 2005, OSS Watch relicensed all of its written material. Whereas previously we had licensed our documents with the GNU Free Documentation License, we decided, from then on, to employ a Creative Commons licence. How OSS Watch came to make such a decision may be useful for others wondering how best to encourage easy reuse of their outputs.

Open content and the GNU Free Documentation License

In 2003, when OSS Watch was established, it was agreed that all the advisory materials that we generated would be made available under an open content licence. The intention was that anyone should be able to use our materials in a variety of ways - printing them, taking excerpts from them, adapting them for use in their local institution - without too much legal difficulty. OSS Watch content is meant to be open for redistribution and reuse.

As with most intellectual property generated by University staff, OSS Watch’s outputs are copyright of the University of Oxford. Only the copyright holder is able to set the licensing conditions for this property. Fortunately this was not a difficulty. All that was required was that the Research Services Office at the University of Oxford, the delegated authority in this matter, agreed to the licensing conditions.

However, before long we realised that the licence we had chosen, the GNU Free Documentation License (FDL), might not be the best open licence for our material. The majority of OSS Watch outputs are short briefing notes and guidance materials. The FDL was designed to license software manuals. Good free software needs to have good free manuals, and those manuals need to be adaptable by anyone who chooses to adapt the software. The FDL grants the right to distribute the manual, and to adapt it (although it also makes it possible to declare certain sections of the document as fixed). Like GNU’s more famous General Public License (GPL) for software, the FDL insists that any release of adapted FDL material is also made under the FDL. This is the copyleft clause and ensures that the documentation in question remains free and open. The FDL also insists that the full licence must be appended to any document that is released under it. This includes adapted versions. Of course, it makes a lot of sense to place the licence right there in the document: this avoids confusion and prevents the accidental separation of the two. Nevertheless, in our case it meant that even the text of a short two-page document, incorporated into another document, would need to have the whole six-page licence attached if it were to be redistributed. Not impossible, of course, but not highly practical either.

The Creative Commons Project

The not-for-profit organisation Creative Commons (CC) was set up in 2001, aided by a grant from the US-based Center for the Public Domain. The open source software movement was making fast progress in creating a large corpus of software that could be freely shared and adapted. Creative Commons sought to extend this success to other forms of copyrighted work, such as images, music and writing. In order to do this, Creative Commons produced a set of open content licences. These licences range from being very open, allowing licensed works to be reused, altered and redistributed, to being more closed and not allowing derivative works.

Since their release in late 2002, the Creative Commons licences have been extremely popular. As well as human-readable legal documents, Creative Commons provides machine-readable metadata that can be pasted into web pages that are CC licensed, or linked to material that is CC licensed. Using this metadata, search engines can produce lists of material that is available under a Creative Commons licence, thus facilitating discovery and reuse. This sounds very enticing if your stated intention, like that of OSS Watch, is to encourage redistribution and reuse of your materials.

Deciding to relicense

For OSS Watch, the Creative Commons licences presented an opportunity. When governed by the FDL, our material had to have the entire licence appended to it when redistributed. Creative Commons licensing only insists that the redistributor include a URL link to the relevant licence on the Creative Commons website. Relicensing our materials under Creative Commons would make things a lot easier for our users.

Perhaps more important still is that the Creative Commons licences exist in a form specific to the different legal jurisdications of England and Wales, and Scotland. This means that if a dispute were ever to arise over the precise meaning of these licences, the use of UK-specific legal drafting would make the settlement of that dispute in UK courts much simpler. For this we can thank the work of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Wolfson College, Oxford and the AHRC Centre for Studies in Intellectual Property and Technology Law at Edinburgh University. While the FDL is generally thought to be enforceable under UK law, it is helpful to have access to licences that are drafted with our region in mind. Having said this, by 2012 the England and Wales regionalisations have fallen behind the unported releases by a full version, and with work beginning on version 4 licences, it mat be that OSS Watch may need to reconsider the decision to use regionalised licences in the future.

But which one of the set of Creative Commons licences should OSS Watch use to relicense its material? Because the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike licence equates largely to the FDL, the vast majority of our documents have been relicensed with the Attribution-Sharealike licence.

Another advantage of using Creative Commons licences is that it is now easier to make some of our materials available under different conditions. There are two cases where we see this as desirable. Some of our materials are intended to be used as widely as possible - for example, presentation slides that explain the core concepts of open source. With these materials, we are not too worried if they are placed in a work that is redistributed under a non-CC licence. In the interests of spreading basic knowledge of our subject area as widely as possible, it seems wise to waive the Sharealike or copyleft aspect, i.e. our requirement that all adaptations use our choice of licence. Conversely, some of our documents (mainly those that deal with the specifics of law) have been vetted by external experts. In these cases, it seems wise to allow their free distribution but not their free adaptation. Of course, as the copyright owner, the University of Oxford can always permit adaptation of the material if it is directly requested; this at least allows OSS Watch the opportunity to assess the request and make a decision based upon its merit.

Relicensing in practice

Once we had made the decision to relicense, we had to gain the agreement of the Research Service Office, along with that of our host institution, the University of Oxford, and our funders, JISC. Having explained our motivations, we secured the cooperation of all three.

From a technical standpoint, the change was effected by altering the way in which we code our web pages. Nearly all OSS Watch materials are written in XML and conform to the encoding scheme of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). A TEI XML document comprises a TEI header and the text itself. As far as the OSS Watch website is concerned, these XML files are transformed into various presentational formats such as HTML and PDF using XSLT stylesheets. All of the recoding that was necessary to relicense the documents was done in the TEI header. Each header was changed to include a human-readable reference to the relevant Creative Commons licence and a machine-readable chunk of RDF metadata to identify the page as CC licensed to search engines.

In summary

To recap our rationale, we chose Creative Commons because:

  • we wanted to free our users from the GNU FDL requirement that they paste the whole licence into each redistributed or derived copy;
  • we wanted to make our materials discoverable via licence-specific search tools;
  • we wanted to create two additional categories of licensed material, one for easier dissemination and another for retention of expert contribution in certain documents;
  • we wanted to make it simple for our users to understand their obligations in using our material.

In documenting the process of change, we hope that other organisations within UK higher and further education can benefit from our experiences. Some of your concerns may be similar to those faced by OSS Watch. We hope that open licensing regimes like Creative Commons can bring many benefits to our sector. Many see open licensing and the public sector as complementary institutions, and it is easy to see why. But the current set of CC licences is only the beginning, and the process of consideration for how we license our copyright material is one that each copyright holder needs to revisit on a regular basis.

Further reading


Related information from OSS Watch: