Licences for Ontologies

Creative Commons: Some Rights Reserved
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One of the things that I have been grappling with for quite some time is the whole notion of licences for ontologies. Of course, neither I – nor anybody else for that matter, should have to worry about this. But the world is the way it is and so the question is: what would an appropriate licence for an ontology be? The answer to that question would mainly depend on what an ontology actually is. Is it a piece of software? Is it a database? A structured document (whatever that means in the context of licensing)?

I have spent quite some time talking to my colleagues about this and we haven’t been able to come up with a satisfactory answer. Even emailing the good folks at the Open Knowledge foundation did not ellicit a response. Now, it seems that the Science Commons have made an attempt to provide some answers on their website.

They state that whether an ontology is protected by copyright law will mainly depend on whether the ontology “contains a sufficient degree of creative expression” or whether it draws entirely on fact. In the latter case, it might not be protected. Now such a statement in itself is intriguing – in the communities in which I and many of the Science Commons people tend to spend most of my time, ontologies are usually understood to be representational artefacts, “whose representational units are intended to designate universals in reality and the relations between them.” Just how much “creative expression” that would allow is an interesting debate in itself, which is probably best had in the pub. But I digress.

Science Commons then goes on to quote some legal precedence in which US courts have upheld copyright in medical ontologies. So really, we don’t know. Science Commons then counsels “pre-emptive” licencing: if in doubt, slap a Creative Commons licence on your ontology (CC0 is explicitly recommended) – if it is later found that copyright cannot subsist in ontologies and that your licence is therefore invalid, you haven’t lost anything, but if it turns out that copyright does indeed subsist in an/your ontology, your bottom is covered. small surprise, too, that the Science Commons would wish to promote the licences of their sister organisation the Creative Commons.

Again, I am not convinced that Creative Commons Licences are an appropriate form of licence for ontologies any more than I am convinced that the GPL licence attached to ChemAxiom is an entirely appropriate licence for an ontology. I would be interested in what the OKF experts have to say about this. The bottom line, for now at least, seems to be that we just won’t know until someone does a lot of deep thinking or it will be tested in court.

Any comments and opinions would be extremely welcome!

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3 Responses to Licences for Ontologies

  1. Nice write up! No conclusion, but it’s law… there is no incentive to make with water-proof…

  2. cameronneylon says:

    Just wanted to make the point that the cc0 licence isn’t really a licence in the same way as the other “some rights reserved” Creative Commons licences but a dedication to the public domain. It is a “no rights reserved” statement. So it is absolutely clear that it is valid for any object, regardless of whether any copyright subsists, as it states “whatever rights I have I give away to the full extent that I am legally able to”. PDDL from the OKF does the same thing and I would guess that is what the OKF people would recommend.

    So putting stuff in the public domain protects the user and makes the authors wishes clear. But if the author wants to control use then there is no clear path. If you want it used I would go cc0/PDDL. This is the same as the position with data really. Because its legal status is murky if you want to make it available to people to re-use then public domain is the choice that provides the most clarity, if you want to make other choices you have to find a path and then get it tested internationally in court.

    • na303 says:

      Thank you Cameron, I agree – CC0 and PDDL are different from the rest. Thank you for the clarification – that was valuable.

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