Greed, Fear & Snobbery: The STM Open Access Licenses

At the beginning of this month the International Association of Science, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM) released a suite of model licenses "for a variety of uses within open access publishing." If that sounds like reinventing the widely used Creative Commons, don't be suckered; it's far worse. Rather than merely wasting our time and trying our patience with superfluous model licenses, STM is promoting licenses that decrease the "commons" and stifle "creative" opportunity. While STM insists that the model licenses will "be complementary to Creative Commons licenses," these "complements" are restrictive in nature. Furthermore, three of the five models are "Full" licenses; only two were written to supplement other licenses.

Why should STM want to launch its own licenses when Creative Commons is at work (and working well) for PLoS, BioMed Central and a host of other signatories in opposition to STMs models? By STM's account, it's because science is special:

"CC licenses are intended to be used across the entire creative sector, and are not designed specifically for publishing, or for academic and scholarly publishing." (Open Access Licensing - STM's Model Licences, 30/07/14)

That is a true statement--it's also a statement that reinforces the virtue of Creative Commons licenses for scholarly publishing. Let's give science to the masses. Let's democratize the exchange of scholarly writing and research. Let scholarly articles and data rub shoulders with Flickr images, YouTube videos and Wikipedia entries. What could possibly go wrong? Will science crumple? Will university scholars spend all their waking hours watching cat videos? No, of course not.

What's really going on? What are the driving motivations behind STM's model licenses? Why do we need models that propose (in confusing and excruciating detail) controls on who is allowed to do what with works of open access academic scholarship?

Although I am certain that many of the people that worked on these models, did so with the best of intentions, the spirit of the approach aligns with negative cultural forces--specifically, a lamentable mix of elitism, fear, and greed.

For example, take a look at STM NONCOM SL. Why do we need five bullet points to define "commercial purposes"? Why is the license so intent on making sure that open access works are not posted on a site "that incorporates advertising"?

Such a restriction appeals to the elitism of scholarly authors. Apparently, we can't bear the thought of seeing an advertisement next to one of the more than 600 erectile dysfunction articles written by scholars every year. But let's be honest; there's no romance without finance. Our hallowed universities are commercial institutions--competing for investors, seeking customers and building brands. Sure, most are "non-profit" and many are "public," but we all have light bills and the money has to come from somewhere.

STM knows this as well as anyone. As a librarian, my inbox is flooded with advertisements from publishers--most of them are STM members. Without fail, I can depend on its members to hawk wares at nearly every conference I attend--even conferences on conflicts of interest. In fact, many journals published by STM members are not shy about including advertisements of some kind within their covers.

I have to admit that I'm not a fan of the smarmy Internet advertising marketplace, but do we really think that free, open access scholarship will be buried beneath a slew of weight loss ads? That doesn't sound like a promising business plan to me. With the right Creative Commons license, the article could be reposted to a site with fewer or no ads. Users would quickly learn where to go to avoid the distractions.

But that brings us to the fear. STM's licenses reflect a fear of the marketplace for "free" information. STM NONCOM SL worries that someone will find a sustainable and yet inventive and better method of serving open access content to scholars, students and inquisitive readers. Rather than encouraging its members to create new ways to share and disseminate open access scholarship, STM NONCOM SL fears that STM members will fail and, thus, it seeks to limit competition.

And so, also, the greed. STM NONCOM SL aims to give something away for free (access) while preventing others from sharing in the benefits of doing the same. This is an impulse we must all resist--authors too. When you share an open access work of scholarship, you do not need to be the sole beneficiary. In fact, that's at least part of the point of scholarship anyway ... isn't it? To share knowledge that will help others? Generations of scholars have been giving away their rights for free and watching as for-profit publishers make hefty profits restricting access to that knowledge. Now that we have an opportunity to build inventive digital mechanisms for nonexclusive distribution of free works, why would we look for ways to prevent people from creating tools that are so good that we'd be willing to pay for them?

Don't succumb to snobbery, fear and greed.  Use a Creative Commons license and play by the rules of a widely understood social norm--one that, by the way, facilitates a little stinginess (see CC-BY-NC-ND). Be proud that someone benefits from something that you chose to share.

-- Jere Odell
Creative Commons License
This rant is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

(P.S. That means you can sell this. If you think you can, go for it. Make my day.)

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Updated Mar 27, 2016 by Scholarly Communication Librarian