Question Copyright recently signed on to an open letter to the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM), calling on them to withdraw the counterproductive model licenses they have been promoting for use in publishing research articles. (STM has written a response, but unfortunately it does not seriously address the very real issues raised in the original letter.)
To understand the problem with STM’s model licenses, you need to understand the problem of “license proliferation”. License proliferation is the phenomenon of institutions coming up with their own slightly different — or sometimes significantly different — copyright licenses, each with its own idiosyncratic terminology and conditions. The problem with this is that if everyone distributes work under a custom license, no one can really re-use or redistribute anyone’s works in practice (even when redistribution is the licensor’s explicit goal), because it takes too much time to read and evaluate all those different licenses. Furthermore, such licenses are often not compatible with each other, which makes remixing difficult or impossible.
Creative Commons came along and basically solved this problem years ago. They offer a very small set of easily comprehensible, professionally drafted licenses, several of which are genuine Free Culture licenses and entirely suitable for scholarly publishing. STM should just recommend that research articles be published under those licenses. There is no need for this new set of model licenses — that just creates a problem for everyone. Creative Commons already solved this; STM should not help unsolve it.
The original letter (which has 77 signatories and counting) explains this very well:
The Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers has recently released a set of model licenses for research articles. In their current formulation, these licenses would limit the use, reuse and exploitation of research. They would make it difficult, confusing or impossible to combine these research outputs with other public resources and sources of knowledge to the benefit of both science and society. There are many issues with these licenses, but the most important is that they are not compatible with any of the globally used Creative Commons licenses. For this reason, we call on the STM Association to withdraw them and commit to working within the Creative Commons framework.
Think of the Creative Commons licenses as an immune response to the disease of current U.S. and international copyright laws. Those laws are maximally restrictive by default, and lead, as diseases often do, to very bad consequences. By using Creative Commons licenses, particularly the fully-freedom-compatible ones, you can ensure that you and your works are never part of the problem: you will not transmit the disease to others.
If the CC licenses are an immune response, then STM’s suggestion that different, special licenses are somehow necessary for scholarly publishing is an allergic response. Like many allergic responses, if it continues unchecked, it can grow to be as bad as the original disease.