IP policies

Creative Commons’ Foundation Engagement Project

Iris Brest, March 25th, 2014

Creative Commons received a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to survey the licensing policies of private foundations, and to work toward increasing the free availability of foundation-supported works. We are still pursuing this objective, but here’s where we are at the moment.

Tax-exempt private foundations are non-profit institutions exclusively devoted to benefitting the public, by grant-making or direct activities designed to achieve charitable, scientific, educational or similar purposes. Because there is a limit to the funds available to even the largest private foundations, most try to use their resources in a way that will have the greatest impact on the problems they hope to solve. Thus, they make grants to organizations that have shown themselves to be particularly effective in achieving their social goals.

One avenue to greater impact that has not been followed as often as it could be is requiring, or at least encouraging, grantees to make any grant-funded works freely available for broad uses by others, so that those works can not only be distributed for education and research, but readily improved and built upon to create new works in a potentially unlimited trajectory. Even assuring public access just to read the works is important. To take one example, foundations often fund research that is relevant to the welfare of the world’s poorest people – who often live in countries where their own researchers can’t afford to subscribe to the journals in which the work is published. Making articles on advances in medicine available through the internet can speed the transfer of knowledge to places where it is urgently needed – often by years. Licenses that give people the right to download, print and distribute those articles, and to translate or otherwise adapt them to local needs, multiply the already-great value of simple access.

Increasingly, government agencies and intergovernmental organizations are adopting open policies for copyrightable works and data they create or commission. For example, all grants under the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Program require that copyrightable materials produced be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license, so that those materials may be freely used by all, eliminating the need for costly replication of effort as community colleges put together courses to train workers for new jobs. Foundations have typically made the same requirement for works produced under grants to develop open educational resources, but only a few have extended the requirement to grants for other purposes.

We believe that in almost all cases, the copyrightable works produced with grant funding, as well as works concerning the problems the foundation seeks to address that are created by expert staff or commissioned by the foundation from external experts, will have more impact on those problems if they are published under an open license. In speaking with foundations, we have learned that most of them agree with this in principle – and it’s on their list; but limited time and unlimited demands mean that the issue usually doesn’t get to the top of the list.

There are, of course, grants a part of whose purpose is to provide the grantee with a source of income; in some (but not all) such cases, the income can only be realized by selling copies of the grant-funded work rather than by providing ancillary services. Obviously, it would not be rational to insist on the work’s being openly published in those few cases. We believe that it is appropriate and desirable for a foundation to adopt principles that cover the large majority of its grants, not to invite requests for exceptions, but to be prepared to relax its policy when it furthers the grant purpose to do so.

We have accordingly drafted a model intellectual property licensing policy for foundations, covering their own works as well as grant-funded works. The draft has been vetted by a dozen or more foundations, and has changed significantly as a result of their input. The current version includes a set of alternative provisions to fit some of the variations some of the foundations have told us they would prefer. It remains a draft in the sense that any foundation should feel free to edit it to suit its own needs, and we have accordingly dedicated the current version to the public domain so that not even attribution is required. Of course, we’d love to hear from any organization that adopts it in any form, and comments will always be welcome.

Check out the wiki page where we have several pieces of information, including:

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