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?