But I thought we were just talking about OA

This post was contributed by Anita Walz, Open Education, Copyright & Scholarly Communication Librarian at Virginia Tech. This blog post is based in part on a presentation given at the Library Publishing Forum 2017, Baltimore, MD, entitled: “Adaptation? Derivatives? I thought we were just talking about Open Access.”

This is an invitation to librarians, particularly those engaged in publishing, to explore current standards and practices, clear communication to non-librarians, and to prompt us to reflect about and discuss our values as libraries supporting access and creation of scholarly and learning resources. I hope that this blog post will:

  1. Better know how to help our clients to think thru licensing options—especially to prompt authors in thinking about the needs of users (and potential users);
  2. Acknowledge a diversity of perspectives regarding what we may mean when we say “open access” and choose our words carefully;
  3. Develop a shared sense of best practices and values as library publishers. Namely, what is our mission and what do we value? Are we fulfilling our mission & values?

Libraries and library publishing initiatives are uniquely situated to both inform authors and to set policies that reflect our values and prioritize the use of limited time and resources to fulfill our respective missions.

Defining open

Within library, scholarly publishing, and open education initiatives the word open can mean many different things1: free online, free to read, or in the case of Public Domain and Creative Commons licenses which allow derivatives—free to adapt and redistribute.

Open access is an area within Scholarly Communication and the publishing industry at large that seems fraught with confusion, even though the prescriptive direction for the landscape was set nearly 15 years ago: The 2003 Berlin Declaration articulates the definition of “Open Access” as is the equivalent of a Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC BY) with one important caveat—limits on the number of print copies. “Open Access” in this case is not the same as “free online.” Yet, truth be told, I don’t use the phrase “Open Access” anymore. Many faculty I talk with understand “Open Access” to mean “free online” regardless of the in-copyright and/or open license (or not) status of a work. In my experience, this phrase does not convey to my faculty the full potential of an item with a CC BY license. I talk instead about “free online” and “openly licensed,” and occasionally discuss the difference between gratis (no cost) and libre (free as in freedom).

Are No-Derivative licenses open enough?

A few semesters ago a new faculty member contacted me about fair use. The book she wanted to use for her course was out of print. While the library had multiple copies and there were half a dozen used books for sale, she had nearly 125 students. Could we license a digital version? No. Could she make copies? It depends. Published in 1987, the book was still clearly in copyright. After a semester of displaying one-chapter-at-a-time via library eReserves under a detailed fair use assertion, I worked with the publisher and authors and found that the rights had reverted to the authors. I negotiated with the authors to broaden access to their work by licensing it with a Creative Commons license and allowing worldwide digital access. Anyone is now able to access, read, download and share the digitized text free of charge, and the faculty member’s problem regarding student access to the text was solved.

I should be happy, right? Yes, the students in the VetMed course have access to an excellent text selected by their professor. The authors were happy to broaden the audience for their work and delighted to see new readership for their classic book which was published in 1987. The text is “free online” and can be freely redistributed with attribution.

Still, I was dissatisfied. The license chosen by the authors was the Creative Commons Non-Commercial No-Derivatives license. CC-BY-NC-ND I failed to convince the authors that there may be value in allowing others to modify their text with attribution—and I don’t mean translation or reformatting pages. I wondered: Is it open enough? Couldn’t we do better? My colleague working in an Open Education Initiative at another University cannot offer it to her faculty as something they could customize. Opportunities for development of albeit hypothetical derivatives, such as “Veterinary Epidemiology in Tropical Climates” or “VetEpi in Emergencies and Disasters” or “VetEpi for Small Animals,” cannot exist without an author starting from scratch. We still have the same problem as before where we can stand on the shoulders of giants, but cannot build on their works.

This has resulted in lingering questions: Is there anything I could have said to persuade the authors? We have limited resources: what kinds of projects do we as a department and as a library choose to support?  (The question of how to license our library-created works has for the most part already been settled.)

Ingredients matter

Several years ago I was involved in a grant-funded project to create a reusable digital learning object. The learning object was to be an open source platform which several faculty members would use as an ancillary teaching resource in their course. The code for the platform was also to be widely and publicly shared as open source software. It was an exciting project. It was not as exciting when small snippets of commercial code were licensed and an iStockPhoto appeared as the main part of the interface — both done to expedite completion of the project. Both actions meant we could not openly license the platform or to share the code openly. When we don’t value the reusability potential of resources we create or the components that go into such works, we end up creating resources which have limited potential impact.

Going beyond “free to read”

In my experience as an Open Education Librarian at Virginia Tech, I rely heavily on licenses which go beyond “free to read” or “no cost distribution” to those that allow derivatives. The following Creative Commons licenses (and Public Domain markers) allow remix, customization, and redistribution with attribution, allowing anyone to build on the shoulders of giants — which can save the time and effort of rebuilding on an otherwise solid foundation. In the case of learning resources, this is helpful because Geology, Calculus, French, Physics and the like don’t change very quickly.


You’ll notice that two Creative Commons licenses are missing above, those which prohibit the creation of derivatives.

In November 2016, the Open Textbook Network, on whose Advisory Board I serve, issued a new policy regarding a preference for CC BY licenses. However, what was most striking to me was the decision that books with a “No Derivative” license will no longer be added to the Open Textbook Library. Legacy “No Derivative” titles were not removed, but no additional “ND” titles will be added. I cheered the decision, as this would make it easier for users to know how to find titles that could be remixed or adapted, like the 2015-16 Fundamentals of Business textbook on which I worked that was a deep revision of an openly licensed 2011 Intro to Business title. Yet, I wondered: How do we enable discovery of the entire range of free-online, CC BY-ND or CC BY-NC-ND books? I wondered: Is limiting the Open Textbook Library to only editable books too narrow? How do we help faculty, students, and broader audiences to navigate the increasingly complex maze of CC-but-not-editable and CC-and-editable items? Are we creating another complex wrinkle for readers and would-be users?

Author decisions

Deciding what to do with one’s copyrights as well as whether or not to openly license is the prerogative of the copyright holder. Authors concerned about the integrity of their work may question the use of Creative Commons licenses, all of which allow redistribution, and some of which allow adaptation (derivatives) with attribution.

Allows adaptation Allows redistribution Requires attribution Eliminates fair use
PD (no known copyright) Yes Yes No No
PD0 / CC0 (donated to public domain) Yes Yes No No
CC BY Yes Yes Yes No
CC BY SA Yes-under same license terms Yes Yes No
CC BY NC Yes Yes Yes No
CC BY NC SA Yes-under same license terms Yes Yes No
CC BY ND No Yes Yes No
CC BY NC ND No Yes Yes No
In-Copyright with no additional license or permission No No  — No

Who says whether it is open enough?

Whether something is “open enough” might be determined by what the eye-of-the-beholder sees or values. Something being “open enough” depends on the willingness of the copyright holder to allow and make space for unimagined possibilities. The vision and creativity (or desperation) of a potential adapter can then leverage this to make something new out of an existing openly licensed work.

In my experience, authors tend to take a conservative stance, opting to do what they’ve always done out of habit, or because they’re unaware of the negative consequences or missed opportunities for others, or out of concern for “what might happen.” Clearing these hurdles requires creativity and tact.  It requires an analysis regarding risk and probability around concerns about potential negative effects. It also requires providing authors with a vision for what sharing and cooperation can do for us, the benefits of Ut Prosim (Virginia Tech’s motto: “That I may serve”), and the reality of virtuous circles. A few places to start these discussions include a blog post by Ryan Merkley of Creative Commons, Sharing, the Foreword of the recent book Made with Creative Commons, or the Why Openness in Education, Chapter 6 of Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies (2012).

Library values (and boundaries)

As librarians, we have a responsibility to educate our potential authors regarding options and outcomes. I see each of these decisions as an investment toward the future, as voting for the future we want, or of getting the future we have chosen. I cannot rightly tell a faculty or staff member, student or colleague, “this is the license you should choose.” I am responsible, however, to invest in the types of projects I should be working on, to say “no” to those outside of the priorities and values, and to carefully leverage the grant monies at my disposal. I’m also responsible to be clear regarding rationale to the people with whom I work, including my understanding of long- or short-term opportunities, impacts, or consequences related to potential projects. I enjoy providing opportunities for those yet unmet who will interested in leveraging and adapting openly licensed content for the benefit of readers beyond what I and the authors I work with can presently imagine.


1 For a longer discussion on this topic, see Pomerantz and Peek in First Monday at http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i5.6360.

© Anita Walz CC BY 4.0 International