License proliferation – the development and use of different and incompatible licenses – has always been an issue in the field of open content licensing. As in any process of standardization, the utility of a certain standard depends on its diffusion. Open content licensing regimes thus become a viable alternative to the prevalent all-rights-reserved copyright regime only insofar as a critical mass of works is licensed under compatible licensing standards.

In the field of free/open source software the GNU General Public Licens (GPL) has more and more become the de-facto standard. The Black Duck Open Source Resource Center reports that about 65 percent of all software packages released under free software/open source licenses use the GPL or one of its deratives.

One of the two major innovations* brought by Creative Commons to the realm of open content licensing was the modularity of its licenses: probably inspired by libertarian ideals of maximizing individual choice (see Elkin-Koren 2005), Creative Commons allows combining different license modules such as “share-alike” or “non-commercial” (see also “Iconic Standards: Regulating and Signaling“) and thus ends up with actuall 6 different and partially incompatible licenses. Initially, Creative Commons had even allowed five more combinations and developed several special purpose licenses such as the “Sampling licenses” or the short-lived “Developing Nations License”. Recognizing that this increase of license choice led to a fragmentation instead of a maximization of the aspired commons of digital works, Creative Commons now struggles to solve a problem it partially helped to create in the first place.

For instance, the education division of Creative Commons, formerly known as CCLearn, published a detailed “Guide to License Compatibility” (PDF) to enhance the remixability of Open Educational Resources (OER). In this guide, Creative Commons explicitly recommends the usage of the most flexible and open Attribution license, which only requires giving credit when re-using, re-distributing or remixing a certain work. This is striking, given the fact that the most prominent adopters of Creative Commons licenses in the field of education use much more restrictive licenses; the MIT’s Open Courseware initiative, for example, uses the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. In spite of all communicative efforts by Creative Commons to use more open licenses, the dominance of restrictive licenses in the field of educational resources has not changed much over the years.

In the future this may however change. Creative Commons’ new argument: Money. In a blog post entitled “Gates Foundation announces $20M for Next Generation Learning Challenges; CC BY required for grant materials” Creative Commons celebrates financial support for its licensing recommendation:

Adopting CC BY is precisely aligned with the overarching goals of foundation funding and initiatives such as the Next Generation Learning Challenges. Last year, the Berkman Center’s study on foundation copyright licensing policies said that open licensing “ensures[s] the broadest and fastest dissemination of the valuable ideas, practices, works, software code and other materials the foundation’s funding helps to create.” That report went on to suggest that the impact of funding is even greater when permissive licenses (such as CC BY) are applied, allowing the resources “to be freely tested, translated, combined, remixed, repurposed or otherwise built upon, potentially by many subsequent researchers, authors, artists or other creators anywhere in the world, as the basis for new innovation, discovery or creation.”

It will be interesting to see, how many of already existing providers of Open Educational Resources such as the MIT will be pulled into the CC-BY-camp both by the Gates Foundation’s monetary incentives and by the growing attractiveness of a more widely adopted CC-BY-licensing standard.


* the other being adaptation of licenses to local jurisdictions (see also “Wikimania Preview #2“)