Creative Commons is not appropriate for data

I’ve been saying this a lot, but it’s not catching on, so I’ll try again!

A Creative Commons license is inappropriate for cataloging records, precisely because they are unlikely to be copyrightable. The whole legal premise of Creative Commons (and open source) licenses is that someone owns the copyright, and thus they have the right to license you to use it, and if you want a license, these are the terms. If you don’t own a copyright in the first place, there’s no way to license it under Creative Commons.

If you read nothing else of this over-lengthy post, read this position paper from Creative Commons on data, and remember the name “Open Data Commons Public Domain Dedication and License.

The Talis-initiated Open Data Commons project was motivated by this fact, to find a suitable open access license for _data_.  This turns out to be a tricky thing to do, in part because intellectual property in data is treated fairly differently in different jurisdictions, AND is still an open legal question in many aspects — to create a license that would apply to all jurisdictions, and apply regardless of how certain open legal questions (in some jurisdictions) get decided is tricky.

The lawyers involved in the Open Data Commons project (with the primary use case being metadata; and it turns out, in parallel, Creative Commons itself too decided the same thing, with the primary use case being scientific data) actually decided that it was unworkable to create an enforceable license for data that was ‘some rights reserved’ like creative commons–that says ‘you can do X, but not Y’ or ‘if you do X, then you have to do Y.’ (eg, Share Alike).   The only workable thing to do was to release data into the public domain, saying whatever copyright or other intellectual property rights you may or may not have to it, you relinquish them, or if you can’t legally relinquish them for some reason, then you grant full and complete rights to the data to anyone, as much as the law will let you.

[I wish there were more online about the legal reasoning and research that went into this determination. I can’t find much. Some can be found in Talis’s position paper, here. Some can be found on the blog Jordan Hatcher, the lawyer involved in the Open Data Commons project, Particularly this blog post, although this was written before the project was complete, and Jordan’s legal opinion of the best way to accomlish the goals changed somewhat. And finally, here is some from the Science Commons project of Creative Commons itself, a parallel project to Open Data Commons, and if I understand things rights, the efforts have somewhat merged. Please note, right from the mouth of Creative Commons itself:

Creative Commons does not recommend using Creative Commons licenses for informational databases, such as educational or scientific databases. For more information, please refer to the Science Commons Open Access Data Protocol. For more background on why we deprecated this FAQ, please see this article.

Hey, look at that, I actually did find a fair amount of stuff on the web about this!  Now I remember why being a librarian is fun. ]

The result is the Open Data Commons Public Domain Dedication and License.

I actually think it’s a mis-step to try licensing your data under Creative Commons.  Actual lawyers looked into this, and the result was the Open Data Commons Public Domain Dedication and License. It’s what it was designed for. I recommend using it.

It won’t allow you to require anyone to do anything if they use your data, like attribute it or re-distribute it freely. But it will mean that your data is forever free, and anybody who wants to who gets your data can do whatever they like with it, including redistribute it. And that is what is needed.


14 thoughts on “Creative Commons is not appropriate for data

  1. Bang on Jonathan. That’s exactly why we stumped up the cash to develop ODC PDDL. The Science Commons and ODC PDDL didn’t merge exactly. What Science Commons did was publish a protocol which ODC PDDL supports by providing a license that adheres to the protocol.

    You’re right to say that ODC PDDL provides no mechanism to enforce conditions on users of data licensed that way, but we did discuss ways for the community to at least state clearly their expectations. This resulted in the development of a Community Norms document [1] that states what is expected.


  2. Just to clarify (but not actually defend) OCLC’s position, they are not actually putting a CC license on the data. They’re just saying that CC was one of the “inspirations” for how they’ve decided to license the data.

  3. I understand that. I just find it ironic that apparently they were inspired by CC to do the opposite of what CC actually does.

    But this essay is not in fact in response to a hypothetical OCLC misunderstanding that CC is inappropriate to data. Rather, it’s in response to lots of people who _disagree_ with OCLC thinking that a ‘counter measure’ is making all original cataloging CC released. I mean to suggest that since CC is inappropriate for data, if you want to do something along those lines, use the ODC PDDL instead.

  4. Yep, they moved it somewhere else or merged it with some other license or something, I forget the details, and don’t have time to go hunt it down. But shame on Talis for making a URI 404 instead of redirecting or providing a short explanatory page with links to replacement content! Talis of all companies ought to know better than to treat a URI like that!

    But there are similar (or maybe even the same) licenses to what used to be there, written specifically for data. Maybe one of my other readers can supply details?

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