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Everything you need to know to publish and share data.

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Understanding licensing

After permissions, the most important decision data publishers need to make is around licensing. A clear licence determines what can be legally done (and not done) with the data you make available on your site.

What is a licence?

In this context, a licence is a legal statement of what can and cannot be done with copyright works.

When you provide a licence for others to reuse your data, you are giving them permission to use that data in prescribed ways. You should think carefully about how you license your data, as some forms of licence cannot be revoked.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a property right that applies to certain categories of original works. In most countries, copyright lasts for the life of the author, plus seventy years. While most countries have exceptions for specific kinds of uses, these exceptions are generally restrictive. For most uses of copyright works, permission has to be granted by the copyright owner.

Creative Commons

The most prevalent open licence is known as Creative Commons. Creative Commons licences are free, internationally recognised, standardised, and have been adopted by governments, universities, businesses and educators all over the world. There are over a billion works licensed under Creative Commons.

The Creative Commons licences allow you to choose between six licences, ranging from more to less permissive. The less permissive licences restrict commercial and derivative use; the more permissive licence allow commercial reuse, and requires only attribution.

Creative Commons also allows for a Public Domain dedication, called CC Zero. This dedication can be used to give away all related copyrights, to the extent possible under the law.

Multiple owners of copyright

Note that copyright ownership can become more complicated when the collection of data is funded by multiple organisations. In these instances, it’s important to make sure you clarify what rights and licences you have over the data. This will affect how you are able to reuse, distribute and repurpose that data down the road.

Case study 1: A government agency

I’m publishing data from a government agency. What licence should I use?

Check if your agency is subject to open data requirements. Many governments around the world have placed open data requirements on government agencies, which may explicitly state which licence you are required to use.

Check if your agency has any established processes for deciding which licence to use. In New Zealand, agencies can use the Government’s Open Access and Licensing framework, which has a useful ‘review and release’ decision tree.

While many government agencies are starting to operate on an ‘open by default’ basis, there remain some valid reasons why data may not be suitable for release under an open licence. These include:

  • Ethical concerns, including privacy.
  • Commercial restraints.
  • Uncertain or contested ownership.

Case study 2: A researcher at a public university

I’m a researcher at a university. What licence should I use for my data?

If you have received external funding, check if you are subject to any requirements or constraints. If you have received funding from a government agency, you may face requirements to make your data publicly available after an established period of time. Alternatively, if you have received funding from a commercial partner, you may be required to embargo or restrict reuse of your data.

Check if you are subject to any restrictions from your employer. Depending on your institution and your employment arrangements, the university may own or co-own the underlying intellectual property in your research - including your data. If this is the case, consult with your university’s research office about the best path forward.

Check if you are subject to any ethics constraints. Depending on the nature of your research, you may face restrictions on what you can do with your research data, including how it can be licensed and released.

Consider all your licensing options. If you face no external constraints, the decision on how to license your data will ultimately be your own.