Creative Commons licences are the standard way to make explicit the permissions 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).
I believe CC0 is the most appropriate legal status for scholarly work. While I appreciate that it is incredibly important for people to receive credit for their work, I don’t think the attribution element (the ‘BY’ of CC BY) is necessary because the systems of credit and attribution in academia are social and cultural practices that exist outside of intellectual property law or licensing. 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 Dickens or Descartes have to be recognised for their work, even though copyright no longer applies to it.
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.
There is one significant concern with my argument as presented so far – that it is 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. 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. So 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. Is this trust misplaced?
Update: 30 August 2017
Recently I’ve been thinking more about the importance of labour, and recognition for the work that individuals do to produce knowledge. The above post was a thought experiment to express some of the ideas I was considering about the legal status of scholarly texts; my current position is somewhat different. The extent to which legal mechanisms can or should be used to enforce behaviours is a complex one and there are no easy answers. 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 will likely remain within the realm of thought experiments such as these.