Publishing your data: the licensing issue

Margaret HentyMargaret Henty was Senior Policy Advisor with the Australian National Data Service (ANDS).

In practice, this meant looking at all of those legal and policy issues which have an impact on data sharing and use, such as copyright, licensing, ethics, Gov 2.0, etc and keeping an eye on developments overseas.

ANDS is building the Australian Research Data Commons: a cohesive collection of research resources from all research institutions, to make better use of Australia’s research data outputs.


An ancient Chinese cheque covered in official red stamps

Providing funds for suppressing the Heavenly Kingdom, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

This is the fourth and last in my series on the whys and wherefores of data publishing. This time, I’m going to talk about data licensing.

The idea of licensing data might not be familiar to you, so it might be good to start by talking about why you need to consider this very important aspect of sharing your data.

Imagine that you are a scientist, and you have collected some important data. Imagine, too, that two researchers in other research institutions have also been working on the same topic and they have data too. You’d really like to get hold of their data and combine it with your own to do some kind of meta-analysis. So, you write to them and they are happy to let you have their data.

When the two files arrive, one is accompanied by a copyright and licensing statement that says what you can and cannot do with the data. This is in lengthy legalese and you have to work out whether they allow you to do the kind of analysis you want to do. The other data file has nothing at all. This means that the data is copyright to the creator or their employer, it might be hard to tell which. You are not particularly familiar with copyright law so you might have to get help to sort out the implications.

This is the kind of situation that many researchers experience: complex agreements or none at all. In practice it creates barriers to data re-use that, in turn, creates a barrier to your ability to pursue your great ideas and, at a national level, to innovation and research.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had a simple way of letting others know what they can and cannot do with our data, and letting you know what you can do with someone else’s data?

The good news is that there is already a national mechanism in place, which will allow you to do just that. It’s easy to use and comes free of charge.

Both Australian federal and state governments recognised this problem a couple of years ago and, in response, set up AusGOAL, the Australian Governments Open Access Licensing Framework.

AusGOAL aims to encourage open access to publications and data to the greatest degree possible. It would be unrealistic to think that all data can be made open access, so AusGOAL offers a variety of licences so that you can vary the conditions you attach to your data.

AusGOAL provides a tool to help you select what licence you need. The tool asks questions and directs you to the appropriate licence based on your answers.

The AusGOAL suite of licences is made up of six Creative Commons Australia Version 3.0 licences, plus a restrictive licence template and a software licence. The Creative Commons licences will be updated to Version 4 sometime soon when these are approved for use.

The six Creative Commons (CC) Licences are, in order of openness:

Attribution: CC BY (Default Licence for Australian Government Departments and Agencies)

This licence lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

Attribution-ShareAlike: CC BY-SA

This licence lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and licence their new creations under the identical terms.

Attribution-NoDerivatives: CC BY-ND

This licence allows for redistribution (commercial and non-commercial), as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you (in practice this has few uses in the data context).

Attribution-NonCommercial: CC BY-NC

This licence lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially and, although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike: CC BY-NC-SA

This licence lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives: CC BY-NC-ND

This licence is the most restrictive of our six main licences, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Restrictive licences are useful if you want to license material that contains personal or other confidential information or has a high security risk associated with its release.

There are a couple of complexities you’ll have to sort out before you can confidently apply a licence to your data. One important thing is to ensure that you actually own the copyright in it. This is not a problem if you are a student, as the copyright will be yours (except in those rare instances where you are working with a commercial organisation, where there should be some kind of agreement settled before you start). However, if you are an employee, especially in a university, you’ll have to check to make sure that you do own the copyright. Your institution’s intellectual property policy will tell you.

If, by some chance, you don’t own the copyright, you’ll have to check what your institution prefers when it comes to licensing data.

Any more questions? Go to the researcher FAQ on the AusGOAL website. If the answer isn’t there, fill in the form with your question and send it in for an answer.

Other posts in the Margaret Henty series on data management

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