Licence of use

Open licenses to share your data

What is a license?

It is a contract in which the author specifies the terms of use of his work. The license gives the author the possibility to grant non-exclusive rights of use, while not transferring his copyright (CCdigitallaw 2017).

Are research data protected by copyright?

Yes and no.

According to the Copyright Act (CopA),a work is protected if three conditions are met: it is a creation of the mind (the result of human activity), it is individual (a third person performing the same task cannot create an identical work) and it is expressed in some way (that can be perceived by the senses) (CCdigitallaw 2020).

This means that :

  • raw or primary scientific data, e.g. unprocessed data, are generally not protected by copyright.
  • processed or enriched data that meet the criteria of intellectual creation, for example graphics, data containing text or images created intellectually with a certain individuality are generally protected by copyright. (Hirschmann 2020)

What should I look out for when distributing licensed content?

  • Only copyrighted works can be made available under a license.
  • Only the author or copyright owner can choose to distribute his or her work under a license. This means that if a dataset contains protected data whose rights belong to third parties, you will have to ask for their permission.
  • Once a content is put under a license, this one applies to anyone who would like to reuse it, including its author.
  • Licenses are irrevocable. Once a license has been chosen, it is not possible to change it.

What are Creative Commons licenses?

Creative Commons licenses are the most widely used copyright licenses in the scientific world because they are compatible with both data and publications, international and relatively easy to understand.

However, Creative Commons licenses are not suitable for software. For this type of work, other Open Source licenses exist.

Explanations about Creative Commons licenses

Présentation sur les licences CC par Tania Germond & Janelise Favre, dans le cadre de capsules vidéo sur la divulgation d'oeuvres protégées par le droit d'auteur. Production du CSE de l'Unil.

Creative Commons Licencs in 180 seconds

Why is it important to license data?

Licenses play a critical role in the distribution of scientific knowledge because they encourage its reuse. In this case, licensing a dataset means removing legal uncertainties and avoiding the "all rights reserved" approach that is problematic in the context of open science.

In principle, repositories allow you to choose the license that suits your needs. Keep in mind that the more open a license is, the more likely it is to encourage the reuse of your data and the new knowledge that may emerge from it, which also gives visibility to your research work.

What is an open license?

According to the Open Definition of the Open Knowledge Foundation, data is open if it can be freely used, modified and shared by anyone for any purpose. Thus, only the Creative Commons licenses CC-BY, CC-BY-SA and CC0 are open licenses.

What are the problems with closed licenses Non-commercial (NC) and No modification (ND)?

Prohibiting modification is problematic because it prevents combining datasets, enriching them with additional data, translating them, or correcting possible errors (The Open Data Institute 2015).

Prohibiting commercial use is problematic because there is no consensus on the definition of "non-commercial use". For example, some of the following situations may be considered commercial use: public-private partnerships; a company using the data to provide a useful, paid service to non-profit organizations; publishing the data on a blog that is hosted for free with advertising revenue (e.g., WordPress); or publishing the results of a data search in a trade journal (The Open Data Institute 2015).

What are the issues with open licenses Share Alike (SA) and Attribution (BY)?

Although licenses requiring identical sharing and/or attribution are open, they also pose problems in the context of research data.

Share Alike is limiting because copyleft licenses (such as CC-BY-SA) are not compatible with other copyleft licenses. This affects the interoperability of the data and increases the problem of license incompatibility.

Attribution (BY) can be problematic because in the case of data, it can quickly become time-consuming and unmanageable to cite one by one all the authors, often numerous, of all the reused datasets, especially if the attribution information is incomplete or, on the contrary, very detailed and restrictive (The Open Data Institute 2015). Moreover, attribution cannot be made legally binding by means of a license if the data are not protected by copyright ... and cannot be licensed (with any type of license).

Our recommandation: share research data under CC0

We recommend sharing research data with the CC0 license for the following reasons:

  • Most research data is not protected by copyright and is already in the public domain.
  • The CC0 license solves the problem of license incompatibility and allows legal interoperability of datasets with each other.
  • There is some logic to putting publicly funded research data in the public domain.
  • Open Science is easier to achieve when there are as few restrictions as possible on the reuse of data.

Beware, not all data can be shared openly. There may be issues related to privacy, commercial confidentiality, security, sensitive data, etc. that prevent full openness of data. In order to take these possible limitations into account, UNIL therefore advocates the approach of sharing "as open as possible and as closed as necessary".

For questions related to commercial issues, intellectual property or patents, consult the PACTT (Powering Academia-industry Collaborations and Technology Transfer).

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Table of CC licenses


“Creative Commons License Spectrum” by Shaddim (CC BY)

CC licenses' compatibility


"CC License Compatibility Chart" by Kennisland (CC0)

Choose a license

For more information