A Case for Changing the Default License (to not include a NC clause)

Currently, the default license for use on iNaturalist is CC-BY-NC, a license that requires attribution and bars “commercial” use of the works. I have found that an overwhelming majority of users never change this license.

There are numerous problems with the NC clause, which makes works available under that clause problematic or less-useful, including for people wanting to use the material for educational, scientific, or other “common good” purposes:

  • They are incompatible with “copyleft” licensing, i.e. CC-BY-SA licenses, and compatible GNU licenses. They are, for example, incompatible with the licensing used on Wikipedia and as such photos and other material with NC licenses cannot be included in Wikipedia articles. This alone is a major downside, as iNaturalist is a huge repository of high-quality images, and many Wikipedia articles, especially of plants, lack good images, but NC-licensed images cannot be included on them. They also are incompatible with most open-source textbooks and educational materials.
  • The “non-commercial” clauses are vague (referencing “primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or monetary compensation”, see this explanation) and cause a great deal of uncertainty about exactly where the line is drawn about “commercial” use. For example, if I run an educational website under the umbrella of a for-profit company, and I place ads on the page (a reasonable thing to do if I want some compensation for server costs and the work I put into the page), at what point is the use “commercial” vs the ads being a “non-primary” use? A lot of people (myself included), rather than deal with this uncertainty (and the possibility of legal action or takedown notices which would cause them to have to do more work down the line), will simply refrain from using material with NC licenses, even if their own work is actually in compliance with it.
  • There have been some strange court decisions about NC licensing, such as this ruling by a German court, which go against the original intent of the licenses, at least as explicitly clarified by Creative Commons’ own explanations. In that case the court ruled that any use even by a non-profit for educational purposes (in that case, German public radio) violated the license. The decision relied on a clause in German law that interpreted “non-commercial” as being strictly for personal use. In theory, all sorts of other problems like this could come up in other countries.
  • Commercial use isn’t even agreed upon to be bad or harmful, and can actually be beneficial. For example, say I want to include images in a field guide, print it as a book, and sell it, while also making it available for free online. I think we’d all agree that this is serving the public good and is educational. But it would be compatible with a CC-BY-SA license (because it’s downloadable for free) but would violate the NC clause because I’m selling it. Also barred by NC clauses include non-profits using photos in fundraising materials.
  • When people use photos for commercial purposes, including the examples given above, when they credit the photographers (and iNaturalist as source) as they are required to do with CC-BY and CC-BY-SA licenses, they are still helping the original photographer, and helping iNaturalist, and also indirectly drawing attention to the purposes that iNaturalist and the practice of naturalist photography serve. So by reducing the commercial use of these licenses, people may be hindering the good that comes from their work and the reach of their work.

Given the problems with this license, and the lack of a strong or compelling case for this, I don’t see any reason not to change it as the default. If people really feel strongly about using a NC clause they can select it on their own, although I would seriously entertain discussion about removing it as an option or at least giving people a warning referring to the problems with the license.

As for which one I’d prefer to be the default, I am personally a huge fan of the CC-BY-SA licenses as they ensure a work will always remain free (i.e. it cannot be remixed into a non-freely-available work whereas a CC-BY work can) but I think CC-BY would be strongly preferable to CC-BY-NC. I also have heard other people make a good case for preferring CC-BY over CC-BY-SA just on the basis of it being more widely usable and thus better suited for ensuring the iNaturalist data and images reach as broad an audience as possible. However, one concern I have about CC-BY is that people can convert CC-BY to CC-BY-NC (there was a case recently of an external website batch-converting huge numbers of observations to NC licensing, which can undermine the intent of people who chose a less-restrictive license to begin with), whereas CC-BY-SA protects against this.

Along the same lines, I also would prefer CC0 (public domain) over CC-BY-NC. But I would probably prefer CC-BY because it protects attribution.

What do others think?

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Despite NC maybe being overly restrictive as you argue. I think allowing commercial use by default is probably more permissive than the average user would expect for the content that they upload; most users probably don’t really understand licenses and don’t change their settings from the default. I think there’s a big risk of people souring on iNaturalist because their images end up being used for a truly commercial purpose without their knowledge or explicit permission all because they kept a default setting that most non-IP wonks overlook.

I think best practice is always to just ask a user for permission to use their photo, as most people using iNat for an image repository already do, and then it doesn’t matter what the license is.

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Yes, this would be a big problem. My understanding is that I can’t even use a SA-licensed photo in the same publication as another photo that I had to get permission to re-use on a one-time basis. For practical purposes, when I’m preparing free educational materials a ‘SA’ license is as good as no CC license at all.

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I personally have been using CC-BY lately, but I’d be unlikely to recommend getting rid of the NC for everyone by default. If you (or someone) wants an image, then just ask them.

Funny enough, I was using CC0 images from iNat for a project, and decided to ask anyway. It was clear that some people did not like that I was using their work, even though it was labeled as CC0. I suspect if the NC is removed, we’ll see that more and more.

I consider the SA licenses toxic, and would never use anything similar to a copyleft license.

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This is true for print publications; it’s not necessarily true for online publications which allow for greater compartmentalization, where different pages on the same site can be released under different licenses, although it depends how you use them. Actually combining text into one body of text, or combining images into a single image would not be allowed, but having the image on a separate page and linking to it from another page with a thumbnail would be. Part of this is that thumbnails are protected under fair use, at least in US law, when they are used as a pointer or link to the full version. It depends how you use them though. If you’re including the full-resolution image in a page, or if you’re only reducing its size so that it fits, and there is no link to a dedicated page for the full original image that is licensed with the SA license, then it would be incompatible.

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“Toxic” is a particularly strong word, why do you feel this way?

Curious as I’m coming from a perspective of a proponent of open-source software, even contributed to some projects including code and donations, I’ve run Linux on my computer for 18+ years, exclusively for about 12, I’ve been a Wikipedia editor (and voracious reader) for years, and I’ve used numerous open-source textbooks. To me, copyleft licensing is absolutely lovely and I’ve seen a long list of compelling benefits from it, not to mention I’ve seen numerous ways it can be used (profitably) in a business setting, although even I will admit that it’s not ideally suited to all uses or purposes, and I don’t always release all my works under it.

I think my biggest reason for loving copyleft is that it’s saved me and others a ton of money, while still allowing for people to generate reasonable amounts of profit and income. So for example, I have saved money on software, and I’ve seen non-profit and government agencies saving a ton of money as a result (in the case of govt, taxpayer money is saved) and I’ve also seen students save money on textbooks by using free / open source textbooks. It also ends up contributing to a body of works that can be used by people, businesses, and organizations with few or strained financial resources, something that I think is a worthy goal in and of itself.

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I think that it is not a great idea to assume that people who sign on to a learning platform, which is what iNat is, are OK with their images being used for any but a very narrow set of purposes.

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While I’m perfectly happy for people to freely use my data and images for personal or educational purposes, if somebody wants to use my images to make a profit (e.g. by selling a field guide), then I think I should be compensated for that use. I suspect many others feel the same way.

My iNat photos come mostly from quick phone pics and aren’t necessarily that high quality (so I doubt that anyone would particularly want to use them anyway), but for for somebody who has spent money and time on their photography, I wouldn’t be surprised if they feel a real ownership over their work and don’t want to release their photos for entirely free use.

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Agreed, same here. I’ve had individuals contact me for use of my images on Flickr. If it’s for non-commercial, pro-conservation purposes I say fine. If it’s for a commercial purpose (a field guide that will be sold) and they don’t offer compensation, then we need to have a discussion and often I’ll say no.

I don’t think iNaturalist should be a place for others to harvest photos for any purpose, although they are always free to contact the submitter of the photo record directly to make a request.

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This argument doesn’t make sense to me. If this were the concern, why is the default license CC-BY-NC, and not for users to retain copyright? CC-BY-NC still allows a wide range of purposes, including (at least in the U.S.) use by for-profit businesses so long as they are not used for a for-profit purpose.

I think the case for the default being for users to retain copyright is actually much stronger than the case for CC-BY-NC or any other NC license. In fact I would prefer retaining of copyright to be the default because I think this would encourage the problematic NC licenses less, and I think it would make a more compelling case for people to think about which license to use (with the hope that most users who want openness would choose less restrictive licenses.) It would also have an even stronger effect of preventing unintended use of photos or other info.

My concern with the current default is that a lot of users probably see it and think: “This is great, this is going to make my work useful for education and science.” without them being aware of the problems I mentioned above. Like, I seriously doubt that the average casual user would realize that this license precludes use on Wikipedia, let alone any of the weird international legal problems or fear of gray area that could lead people to avoid use (such as in educational materials) even where it would be legal or at least intended to be legal under CC’s explanation of the license.

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It seems like a lot of this could also be addressed by a campaign asking/informing users about the benefits to choosing a CC0 or CC-BY license

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Yes! Regardless of what the default license is, more education / information about the licenses and their implications would be really important, and something I’d enthusiastically support!

I feel more strongly about this than about what the default license is.

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Yes, but none of that’s really an argument for loosening the license further. I can come up with arguments for the current arrangement but the reality is that there is no setting for licensing that would resolve every legitimate concern.

Copyright is a topic with a lot of grey areas, a lot of variability among jurisdictions and no simple solutions for balancing desires for access and control. The current arrangement suits me, although I can imagine circumstances in which it wouldn’t, and I’m fine with leaving it up to users whether they want to loosen or tighten their settings. I’m also fine with making the default retention of copyright by users, if that’s what iNat wants to do. I agree with the point made by @alexis18. As well, a checkbox in settings or in each observation offering the option of setting permissions to allow use in Wikipedia would be a way of addressing that concern directly.

Most people have no idea what the licensing involves. They’re here to learn and one of the things iNat might want to teach is the meaning of the Creative Commons and its relevance to iNat. Maybe placing the options more visibly in the observation process, with appropriate links to clear FAQ content, would increase the number of observations available to Wikipedia. Regardless, informed consent matters.

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See related feature request, and as an example, the infographic linked here:
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/improve-viewing-editing-copyright-information-on-observations/308/22?u=bouteloua

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Perhaps “toxic” is a strong word. “Infectious” might be more accurate?

Open Source is great. GPL and copyleft? Not so much, in my opinion.

The problem is as soon as you use copyleft, you are forced to use that license for anything that uses it. It infects everything it touches. I too am in the software industry, and I literally cannot use copyleft software at work as part of a solution. For example, a GPL or LGPL license is an automatic: No. We can usually find something that solves the same problem with an Apache 2 license (I am unaware of anything where there was not a commercial-friendly option).

I do not like forcing everyone for all eternity to use a particular license for their own work just because they used some of mine. I understand that you have a different opinion on that, and that is fine.

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Interesting discussion! I would like my observations and media to be shareable with both Wikipedia and GBIF, so I looked up their policies. Wikipedia accepts share-alike licenses (e.g. CC-BY-SA) but does not accept non-commercial licenses (e.g., CC-BY-NC), while GBIF accepts non-commercial licenses but does not accept share-alike licenses, so the most restrictive license that satisfies both is CC-BY. I’ve now changed all my content to that. I suspect the GBIF restrictions would be a deal-killer for iNaturalist to default to the CC-BY-SA license.

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One thing to keep in mind is that the licenses for images, sounds and observations can all be different (although I don’t feel that iNat does a particularly good job of explaining that). I’d even argue copyrighted observations shouldn’t be allowed (the factual info that “I saw organism X in place Y”), while for images and sound recordings allowing a lot more freedom makes sense to me. In any case, I would hope the license of the image or sound wouldn’t be a problem for GBIF to be sent the actual observation point if the license for that is compatible, which I expect is what they really need.

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Thanks for posting this. I’ve been wondering what license options I should select to make sure my data is at least available to Wikipedia. I’ve updated my settings now to CC-BY. It would be nice if there were some kind of explanation for each license setting, with the pros and cons laid out in layman’s terms, because I suspect those binomes are completely foreign to most casual users–they certainly are to me.

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I think it comes down to trusting what it is that will be shared. If I contribute an image and someone wants to modify that image and even if they attribute it correctly, I would like to have some say in how much they can alter the image and thus retain the right to not allow them to use it if I disagree with the changes they have made. It’s going to be rare circumstances, and I struggle to think of an example that would be relatable, but lets say I am out observing nature, and I share a photo of a friend looking under logs for herps… and then someone else modifies that image and puts tractors and logging equipment in the background and a caption over it saying “locals are helping loggers to clear our forests”…

Also, we need to think about what we let out of the gate, because it is not easy to get them back in. It’s much easier to start from a restrictive license and later on offer it more freely, than it is to start with a very unrestrictive license and then to try and tighten control. So I think default should be NC inclusive, and more encouragement in the onboarding for participants to change to the less restrictive licenses

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To me, this is the key issue here. For most people, the observation license should be public domain if people want the data to be most useful for science. If a researcher is doing an analysis with thousands of observations and thousands of observers, it is not practical to give attribution to all of them. Except in very rare cases (e.g., an exceptionally interesting observation that the observer is planning to publish) I don’t understand the use case for more restrictive licenses for observations on a citizen science site.

The image/sound licensing is a separate issue, and I would guess that 99% of users don’t realise this is a different thing from the observation license (I remember it being a eureka moment when I realised the distinction). I use CC-BY for my images so others can use them while requiring attribution.

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