Using Creative Commons Zero (CC0) for scholarly work

[This post is a work in progress that has been updated multiple times, most recently on 2 October 2017.]

Creative Commons licences are the standard way to make explicit the permissions that are granted for open access work. Of the various permutations these licenses have – such as allowing commercial re-use or not, allowing derivative works or not – the Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC BY) is the one most commonly held up as the ‘gold standard’ licence to use for research texts (books, journal articles etc.).

CC BY is the most permissive of all Creative Commons licences because it allows work to be copied, shared, and re-used in any way you like so long as the original author is credited. However, there is another tool from the same organisation that is even more permissive – the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) public domain dedication. This allows authors to waive any rights they have to a work to the fullest extent possible by law – ‘no rights reserved‘, rather than the ‘all rights reserved’ of copyright or the ‘some rights reserved’ of Creative Commons licences (CC0 is not strictly speaking a licence).

In some ways, CC0 can be seen as the most appropriate legal status for scholarly work. At present, CC0 is more commonly used for data than text. It allows data to be merged from multiple sources without needing to document the rights status of each piece of data, and it can move between systems in a more frictionless way. Using CC0 for text documents allows them to be treated, conceptually, in a similar way – thus facilitating text mining. I have used CC0 for most of my recent work, including reports as well as published articles in Open Library of Humanities and Insights. I have not encountered any problems in doing so.

The main concern people have with CC0 is around attribution. It is incredibly important for people to receive credit for their work. On the one hand, it could be argued that the attribution element (the ‘BY’ of CC BY) is not necessary because the systems of credit and attribution in academia are social and cultural practices that exist outside of intellectual property law or licensing. So even though by using CC0 the moral rights of authorship are waived, this does not change the necessity for other scholars to correctly attribute prior authors – if someone was to plagiarize a work, that would be the case no matter what licence was attached to it. Since CC0 releases work into the public domain it puts it on the same legal standing as other public domain works; in other words, an author has no more or less right than Jane Austen or Adam Smith have to be recognised for their work, even though copyright no longer applies to it.

On the other hand, social norms are more likely to work in favour of people in a position of privilege. People from marginalised groups are more likely to not receive credit for their work, and/or have others take credit for their ideas.[1] (See Martin Weller on ‘the privilege of risk‘, and Tanya Dorey-Elias on taking risk anyway.) So using legal instruments to enforce behaviours that should be governed by community norms, but in reality require stronger measures to make people comply, is a powerful technique that has frequently been used to re-balance power relationships in favour of social justice.

Attribution highlights the importance of labour, and offers recognition for the work that individuals do to produce knowledge. The extent to which legal mechanisms can or should be used to enforce behaviours is a complex one and there are no easy answers. Does the benefit of forcing compliance outweigh the liberties gained through the absolute waiving of rights? I regard using the CC0 dedication for textual work as a form of ‘radical optimism’ that places a lot of trust in subsequent users of work. But this trust may be misplaced. CC0 is no panacea for shaping optimal scholarly communications practices, and is such a radical departure from current practice that the notion of using CC0 for most or all scholarly texts is unlikely to become widespread any time soon.


[1] Ian Clark [@ijclark] (2017). ‘This ain’t my area of expertise, you know way more than me! But aren’t there negative implications here for marginalised groups?’ Twitter, 27 March 2017. <>. Lauren Smith [@walkyouhome] (2017). ‘Consider also which identities are likely to have their labour uncredited and which have most power to demand ‘social norms’.’ Twitter, 27 March 2017. <>


1 thought on “Using Creative Commons Zero (CC0) for scholarly work

  1. Since one of the purposes of CC licences is to extend usage beyond the ivory walls of the academy by people who may not be familiar with or share our “social and cultural practices”, the CC-BY licence seems to offer more protection of the interests of the author – hey, I *always* want to be credited for my own work – but without inhibiting re-use. I don’t really see the particular extra benefit of CC0 for written works. As a living author, I care more about these things than Dickens or Descartes… Eventually, I will stop caring. ;-)

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