Why Universities Choose NC, and What You Can Do

Reading Wayne Macintosh’s feature on WikiEducator got me thinking again about some people’s dissatisfaction with those projects that use the NC clause. (I’m not a fan of the NC clause, but I have never projected these negative feelings onto institutions or faculty who adopt the clause.) So I started asking myself – why do universities adopt the NC clause for their OER projects in the first place? And if we wish they wouldn’t use the NC clause, what can we do about it?

When an institution enters a new world (like the world of open educational resources) we can and should expect the early adopters to move in baby steps, dipping their toes in before diving in head first. The force of will necessary to motivate the institution to take even these tiny initial steps comes at great personal costs of time, effort, and political capital to the individual champion or tiny band of champions who push the cause within the university. The costs are very real.

In my view, the so-called “free content movement” should welcome these institutions with open arms and applaud their first attempts at entry into the community. After all, just getting a handful of university courses digitized, licensed By-NC-SA, and posted online takes a massive commitment of time and love and tears and pain. This is a genuinely laudable first step. However, instead of a show welcome and gratitude, too often the institutional champions are greeted with complaints that their resources aren’t “free enough” and accusations that they must not really care about helping people learn, because they couldn’t convince their institutions or faculty peers from day one that they didn’t need the NC clause. After suffering the pains of conception and birth of their project, this feels like the ultimate insult to the champions. It dispirits and depresses them at exactly the moment when we should be encouraging them, building them up, and refreshing them before they begin round two.

Just as I experienced at USU, it isn’t long into an OCW project before faculty digest the general notion of sharing open educational resources. This gives them the prerequisite knowledge they need to become capable of understanding why the SA clause gives them all the protections they thought they needed from the NC clause. (Some of those who have been involved in the OER world for a long time tend to forget that there are some prerequisites to understanding this distinction, and tend to be frustrated by “newbies” who don’t get it.) Courses can then be moved from By-NC-SA to By-SA, just as we are in the process of doing at USU (we currently have approval from authors to make this change to a third of our 60 courses).

When we talk about a community of practice, we frequently describe new members as initially being on the periphery of the group, and over time moving toward the core of the group. If we view the open educational resources community or the free content community or whatever you want to call it as a community of practice, then we should fully expect see faculty and institutions begin at the periphery, move tentatively into the circle, and eventually make their way into full participation as core members of the group. In other words, we should expect to see them move from (C) to By-NC-SA to By-SA, and perhaps over time to By.

The “free content” movement should understand that the adopters of the By-NC-SA are their best potential recruiting ground. These are faculty that have already shown some interest in openness and are hanging around the periphery of the group. The free content people should be nice to them, compliment them and encourage them, and give them support in the painful process of *slowly* moving their institutions toward full participation in the community. All too often the only interactions between these groups are the free content folks preaching at the champions for “not caring enough” to make their content “truly free,” and the champions finally collapsing in exhaustion for being labeled hypocrites in the one endeavor they care most about.

In short, faculty and institutions generally move step by step, not all at once. The faculty and institutions who have chosen the NC clause need to be encouraged, nourished, and supported – not insulted or belittled. If we can demonstrate some patience and care, I believe we will eventually see most of the university-based OER projects move to By-SA, and perhaps then even to By. If we can’t demonstrate these virtues of patience and care, then all we are likely to see out of the universities is a trail of discarded, stagnant OER projects whose champions gave up on them.

So – why do they choose NC? Because they’re new to this world of OER. And what can you do about it? Perhaps someone will create (or, if it exists, popularize) a friendly, non-condescending, for-beginners version of why SA provides most of the protections people instinctively feel they need from NC. Then, when the time is right, we can share this OER with our friends in a spirit of helpfulness.

6 thoughts on “Why Universities Choose NC, and What You Can Do”

  1. Obviously this is a ridiculous, logical argument to a passionate issue!! *tongue firmly planted in cheek* Yes, please. Let us allow all good people to advance one step at a time. đŸ™‚ Thanks for this read.

  2. Hey David – Good title, but then you do not so much explain why some institutions chose NC, but rather argue the “free content” movement should be nice to them.

    I agree that people get scared when they are supposed to “let go” of their work, and that NC can help ease them into it. However, it is the local champions that argue for the economic merits of the NC license (not as a tool to overcome irrational fear) who must be convinced of the logical errors in their arguments. There are a few cases where the NC option might make sense, but in most cases adding the Share Alike clause to NC achieves the desired outcomes.

    Who are those evil mis-appropriators that we are scared of? Probably the big media companies and firms. But, these are exactly the organisations that hate Share Alike like the pest (can you imagine the new Madonna video licensed under BY-SA-NC, because they really wanted to include that photograph you took?). So the guys that are worth going after, won’t touch your BY-SA content with or without the NC option.

    That leaves the others, small fish, who might use your content trying to get rich. First, everyone who wants the free content can still get it from you – so that’s not really a great business model. Second, these guys are probably not worth going after since they usually don’t have assets worth the effort (and legal costs). The only way to keep the content out of their hands would be to keep it locked up.

    So, if you decide to share, you might as well “share nicely”.

    /P (trying to be nice to everyone)

  3. I’m grateful that us folks that chose an NC CC should not be treated so badly! I just wanted to add though that the key reason we went for NC at UKOU for OpenLearn was not about academic discomfort/nervousness but really because of the sheer amount of 3rd party content that our materials include. We did not want to omit that stuff from our offering as it would have made learning almost impossible for our users and the IP holders (mainly large publishers) were as far as I can see *much* more supportive of the project if they knew the use of their embedded content was restricted to non-commercial.

  4. Stephen:

    So it was 3rd party discomfort/nervousness đŸ™‚

    You say that NC made them “*much* more supportive” of the project, but did you try to mention the problems associated with NC and explain why NC is neither necessary to achieve what they want, nor does it (in almost all relevant cases) protect their content more effectively than BY-SA?

    I think they liked NC, because of the same knee-jerk reaction that most people have initially, that somehow NC will protect their property, their business interests, …] and keep things “nice and fair”. From my experience, explaining why that is not the case, usually helps them see through the myths of the NC option.

    I am not advocating to force anyone to use a particular license, but the licensing subtleties are complicated (after all this community has been arguing about them for months, years?) and we must make an effort to help content owners make a truly informed choice.


  5. I’m very interested in this issue. I’m currently working on a book to be published by Apress on mashups (http://blog.mashupguide.net/about). The deal I have with my publisher is to publish the book under a By-NC-SA-2.5 license. As David knows, I was debating with myself on what license to choose from among By-NC-SA, By-SA, and the GNU FDL. I finally decided not to go all the way to By-SA because I was afraid that if we didn’t go with the NC restriction, a commercial player could undercut Apress (and me) by taking all the materials and selling it in a more commercially advantageous position. That is, I’m afraid of the prospect of someone printing and selling paper copies at cheaper cost or putting up my book on a commercial site and realizing advertising revenue for cheap (since they did not put in the money to produce the book in the first place.) I will admit that my fears may not be well-founded — so I’m interested in figuring out whether I should revisit the issue of licensing with my publisher. (It’s not that Apress is adverse to publishing books under the GFDL — see http://www.djangobook.com/license/, for instance.)

    I will say that the incident with Seth Godin’s book did not help with my fears though. (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2007/02/please_dont_buy.html)

    Bottom line: how do I make my work as open as possible while not opening my publisher and me up to being unfairly taken advantage of commercially? I’m not predicting that I’ll be making tons of royalties off my book, but I don’t want to have what little might be coming my way to be taken away either! đŸ™‚ Since I recently left the long-term employ of the University of California, I’m a bit more dependent on income from writing than I used to be.

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