Open Content Licensing Mess

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Or, choosing an Open Content Licence.

Imagine you want to write documents and make them reusable by others. I certainly want to! Surely there must be something similar to Free Software and Open Source Software licences for copyright-protected software? That's what lots of people thought and they created Open Content licences with enthusiasm. It is a young area, solutions are coming but right now there are some issues to work through.

We have a situation where millions of pages of Open Content Licensing are available for free re-use and mixing, so long as they aren't mixed with each other. Which was mostly not the intention when the licences were written :-(

Open Content Licensing is confusing and there are no completely satisfactory outcomes. This article discusses the options and finds a solution for

Update: there seems good cause for hope on one front: version 3 of the GNU FDDL is being worked on, trying to address the sorts of problems raised in this article.

Last updated Dan 00:59, 17 July 2007 (CST)


Open Content Licensing


Why It is a Mess

Open Content is a mess principally because it is a young field. In their attempts to emulate the success of Open Source and Free software, early Open Content licences were mutually incompatible and some of them have unwieldy terms and conditions. Some of this was unintended. Even software authors whose strong convictions concerning licences lead to incompatible licencing regimes do not seem to feel that way about documentation, and many non-technical authors explicitly do want compatibility.

A lot of people are now working to harmonise licences, with pressure from content owners who want their content to be more generally useful and who do not want to do complicated things to accommodate the mess.

Background About Copyright

Today's copyright situation is quite recent, see Wikipedia on Copyright for lots of detail.

Copyright is a legal guarantee of a monopoly of the right to copy a particular work, originally intended for the benefit of the author of the work. Copyright is a Western European idea widely codified towards the end of the 1700s, and until the 1900s only applied to written literary works. From the 1960s on this monopoly right was reinforced greatly and turned into a weapon for very large companies to use against individuals. Since the 1970s legal and technical means have been invented to turn copyright into a business weapon of large companies against individual consumers. Copyright laws still also benefit individual creators, but the armoury of enforcement tools is only practically available to large companies. This armoury includes tools that can affect everything a consumer does with their computer, regardless of whether they use any material copyright or administered by a large company.

Some Western countries such as Spain provide relief to ordinary consumers from the most stringent aspects of copyright law. In contrast the United States grants full monopoly rights to corporations including enforcement rights against private consumers including young children. Other Western countries fall between these two extremes.

Copyleft is an even more recent (1980s) term referring to an inverted approach, using the strong protections of Copyright law to let an author insist that a work always remains available for copy and modification. Copyleft ideas have been tested in some Western courts of law and are regarded as valid.

Background About Open Content

The idea of creative output of all kinds being freely available for copying, sharing and modifying has been the default for all recorded history, with the recent exception of Copyright as applying to literature. Even more recently Copyright has been applied to most kinds of artistic and creative endeavour.

By the end of the 1990s the Free Software and Open Source movements had demonstrated conclusively that applying Copyright law to the revese of its intent is a good solution. People started thinking about applying the principle to other kinds of works as a way of imperfectly re-creating the kind of environment in which all creative talent flourished down the millenia. In 1998 the term Open Content was coined and a lot of activity started to define legal terms required.

The challenge of Open Content is that authors of computer software require a much less sophisticated range of protections than authors of, well, anything creative, encompassing every imaginable tangible and intangible medium.

The Problem

Like many people, I want to choose a licensing model that will allow:

  • me to remain associated with my original work, even though other people are copying and modifying it. All open content licences allow this by means of an attribution clause. If you chisel my name off you are breaching the agreement and so have no legal right to use my content at all.
  • users of my work not to be restricted in what media or language they use. That's a problem with the GFDL, which mandates that the licence in its entirety be appended to all copies. In English.
  • my work to be incorporated into common online media projects, especially Wikipedia and compatible works. Wikipedia mandates the GFDL, which was chosen when Open Content was in its infancy and the GFDL was considered a good option at the time. The FSF is working to fix the problems and hopes to release an update to the GFDL at the same time as the new GPL in the first half of 2007.
  • users not to be intimidated by the licence in any way, for real or imagined reasons. That can be problem with the GFDL.
  • users to be free to use my work under a variety of different licences, recognising that often people are constrained by whoever started a document, or by institutional policies etc. This is a problem with the GFDL because it cannot be combined with several of the very popular licences.
  • users comforted by seeing a familiar licence that they can rely on. This isn't a comment on the quality of the licence but on how well it is accepted (I do want a reasonable quality licence too!)

The Open Content License and the Open Publication License are not suitable. They were among the very earliest attempts at Open Content and are rarely used these days.

Policy at

All content will have clearly marked licence at the footer.

Most content will be dual licensed with:

  • the GFDL, so content can move to Wikipiedia and similar projects, and
  • the Creative Commons Cc-by-sa which is a well-known copyleft and compatible with many other things.

I may be persuaded to use Cc-by, I'm not too bothered. I can easily re-licence material if I do change my mind :-)

This means that material leaving can be covered by two licences or either of the above. So, for example, someone cuts and pastes into Wikipedia, that's under the GFDL. If it is then modified and I cut and paste back, that can only be under the GFDL so I will then need to make that clear. Annoying, but managable given that I don't expect too many authors.

If someone wants to reuse a large chunk of my material in the Far Eastern Economic Review for example, then they need to choose one of these licences, or both. Or perhaps more likely, they come to an agreement where I give them publishing rights quite separately to the rights granted to everyone reading

None of this impacts fair dealing (or, in the US, fair use) provisions of Copyright law.

Example of How This Works

If all authors on a topic want their work to be freely reused and don't care about the details too much you'd think it would be simple. But no.

For the article Linux Server Partitioning I thought I would copy a few sentences from the Nix Partitioning Guide. That would be fair dealing, but I could easily have wanted to take more. The licence says:

 This content may be freely distributed, copied, or 
 modified, with attribution, and this notice.

Which is a BSD-style licence, compatible with both the Cc-by-sa and the GFDL because it does not have any clauses that say "you must not add other conditions". So I can pull as much of that as I want (almost nothing, as it happens.)

If someone at ix wants to reuse my content then they can take it under the terms of the Cc-by-sa, but not the GFDL.

Therefore my content can find its way to Wikipedia and back again to, but not back again from Wikipedia via ix.

No wonder the Debian project passed a General Resolution Vote that says Why the GNU Free Documentation Licence is not suitable for Debian main . If someone wants to include documentation from in Debian, they can do this under the Cc-by-sa.


Creative Commons License
Creative Commons Attribution iconCreative Commons Share Alike icon
This content is licensed under the Creative Commons
Attribution ShareAlike License v. 2.5:

GNU head GFDL: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License". ( uses but does not currently recommend the GDFL and here's the explanation why. )
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