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    • CommentRowNumber1.
    • CommentAuthora3nm
    • CommentTimeOct 28th 2023

    Apologies if this is a common question -- I have looked around but did not find reelvant discussions. I'm a theoretical computer scientist who just discovered nLab, and I find it very interesting, but I was confused about the copyright status of the content on nLab and about long-term preservation plans.

    From the homepage ( it seems that contributors to nLab did not agree to any license on their content, so it is unclear what can be done with it (or you have to check contributor-by-contributor).

    This makes me worry about the long-term viability of the nLab content. If someone wanted to mirror the content, e.g., for long-term preservation, or to fork the project in case it becomes inactive, then they would need permission from all people who ever contributed to nLab -- which would be essentially impossible to obtain.

    I was under the impression that most prominent wikis and crowdsourced databases (Openstreetmaps, etc.) used an explicit permissive copyright license (e.g., Creative Commons BY-SA, Open Database License, etc.), in particular to ensure that the content could be redistributed and re-hosted in the long term.

    I was curious to know whether there had been any thoughts about this for nLab and why the absence of an explicit copyright license was not perceived as problematic?

    Thanks for your insights!
    • CommentRowNumber2.
    • CommentAuthorUrs
    • CommentTimeOct 28th 2023

    This is dealt with in the section “Making use of materian from the nLab”.

    In short, free use of everything, if accompanied with proper attribution.

    In particular, mirroring the nLab is clearly permitted. If you are looking into this concretely, which would be appreciated, I’ll bring you in contact with our technical team members for further details.

    • CommentRowNumber3.
    • CommentAuthora3nm
    • CommentTimeOct 31st 2023
    Hi Urs, thanks!

    I had seen that section you are mentioning (I'm mentioning it in my question). I agree that reading it gives the impression that every kind of reuse is allowed provided it's attributed. I was just wondering whether this is "sufficient" to reassure future potential reusers about the copyright status of the material, in particular because apparently editors do not need to agree to these terms when submitting an edit... (Compare Wikipedia, where there is a message when submitting an edit indicating that the author is releasing the work under CC-BY-SA.)

    In any case, I don't have immediate plans to mirror the nLab -- thanks for asking, though, and thanks for your answer!
    • CommentRowNumber4.
    • CommentAuthorUrs
    • CommentTimeOct 31st 2023
    • (edited Oct 31st 2023)

    10 years ago I tried to make us state a copyright license, but the so-called “steering committee”, at that time, prevented it (thread here).

    Since then, at least all my edits are licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 here.

    • CommentRowNumber5.
    • CommentAuthorRodMcGuire
    • CommentTimeOct 31st 2023

    Urs - a3nm seems to make a lot of corrections or clarifications to fairly random Wikipedia articles.

    He made the last 2 changes to the nLab article there involving the Journal and copyright.

    • CommentRowNumber6.
    • CommentAuthorUrs
    • CommentTimeOct 31st 2023

    Thanks, I see.

    • CommentRowNumber7.
    • CommentAuthora3nm
    • CommentTimeNov 14th 2023
    Thanks for the pointer to the earlier discussion. I see that what I had in mind had been discussed before in that thread.

    In my humble opinion I think it's a bit regrettable that there is not a CC-BY disclaimer shown to users when editing a page (indeed the home page disclaimer is not enough, a user may edit a page without seeing it and thus without "agreeing to it"). Doing so would have indeed ensured that the content could be reused, e.g., on Wikipedia, without having to worry about who contributed and which individual licenses people agreed to. But of course I'm not contributing to nLab (yet?) so that's up to you all. :)

    Sorry also if my Wikipedia edits lead to some confusion. The Wikipedia article about nLab is where I had first gone to understand the licensing situation, so I added the info now that I have it.

    Many thanks again for your clarifications.
    • CommentRowNumber8.
    • CommentAuthorDavidRoberts
    • CommentTimeNov 14th 2023

    @Urs Please don’t refer to it as the scare-quote-steering-committee. You were also member at the time, and for whatever reason, unimportant now (and I can’t remember and I don’t have time to go read the thread), no consensus was reached. The steering committee was a necessary body in the early days on the nLab due to various troubles. If now you have found it unfit for purpose and moved on, then that’s no reason to publicly disparage its actions before what led you to decide to leave it.

    • CommentRowNumber9.
    • CommentAuthorUrs
    • CommentTimeNov 15th 2023

    Re #7: Thanks for getting back to me.

    So in your opinion, best practice would be that the nLab states a copyright statement at the bottom of each page?

    And maybe, from what you say, it should also be stated prominently around the edit pane where users make their edits?

    Is there available some website or document of some authority, which would discuss best practice for copyright issues of this kind?

    Some source to support the point that you are implying?

    (Not that I am doubting it, but just so that I have more in hand than a quote by an anonymous handle.)

  1. A quick search of the nForum leads to these two discussions from 2011, which may be relevant:

    • CommentRowNumber11.
    • CommentAuthora3nm
    • CommentTimeJan 23rd 2024
    Hi Urs, hi everyone, sorry for the delay in replying, I had not noticed that you had replied, and as a new user I was not aware that I would not be getting an email notification. I have now enabled email notifications.

    About #9: yes, I think a good practice would be to have, in the footer of each page, a copyright statement and an explicit license, e.g., CC0 if you want to allow everyone to reuse the material (and only want to ask for attribution from the point of view of academic customs, not copyright). And indeed, whenever an edit is submitted, I think it would be good to have a visible message saying that the submitter put the material under that license (and that they guarantee they have the right to do so, i.e., it isn't copied from somewhere else).

    I looked for a reference to justify the importance of such choices which also has pointers to other discussions. But I think the empirical evidence is that, as far as I know, all major wikis (Wikimedia projects, Openstreetmap, Stack Exchange projects, etc.) do have an explicit license and require contributors to visibly agree to that license when they contribute. This choice of license turns out to be important because relicensing has been a pain whenever it was attempted (cf: Wikimedia's relicensing from GFDL to CC-BY-SA, Openstreetmap's move from CC-BY-SA to ODbL, Stack exchange drama about the move from CC-BY-SA 3.0 to CC-BY-SA 4.0... I can provide pointers if necessary).

    (BTW, I did not intend to be anonymous, and added my real name and a pointer to my website to my account.)

    About #10, relative to the earlier discussions: it seems that @zskoda was the most visible opponent of the idea of having an explicit license. I don't know if their perspective has changed since 2011. I think that, since then, we have seen more academic publishers using open licenses as well, e.g., CC-BY used by LipiCS I think it's well-understood now that such licenses exist in parallel to academic customs (e.g., about citations) and are still valuable to have. Also, the Berlin definition of open access also provides that open access material should be provided under an open license (not just given with an informal claim that the material can be reused).

    If the consensus now is that people contributing to nLab should be fine with anyone reusing their content without copyright restrictions, and the only limitation to reuse is academic customs (e.g., citations), I think adding an explicit permissive license to avoid copyright problems does no harm: could be CC-BY, but it can also be public domain or CC0. The only problem is that you can't unilaterally put that license on contributions by past users, and it's unclear what you can do to contributions that are changes to past pages.

    I think the easiest concrete proposal would be to use CC0 from DATE onwards, have a copyright footer saying "all contributions from DATE licensed under CC0", and have a disclaimer when submitting contributions "you agree to license your contribution under CC0". There would still be uncertainty about the copyright status of contributions before DATE, but at least for newer pages this would solve the issue. It's hard to anticipate this now (and of course I don't know the nLab project well enough to judge), but there may come a point where you'll want to reuse nLab content with someone who cares about copyright (e.g., Wikipedia, a publisher, etc.) and you'll be happy then to have clarified the copyright status of contributions to the pages you want to reuse.

    Sorry for the long message. I hope this helps. I'm now subscribed to notifications so I don't miss the rest of the discussion.
    • CommentRowNumber12.
    • CommentAuthora3nm
    • CommentTimeJan 23rd 2024
    PS: the license question has also been discussed here. See where @TobyBartels makes similar points to mine.
    • CommentRowNumber13.
    • CommentAuthorTobyBartels
    • CommentTimeJan 25th 2024

    For what it's worth, everything that I ever write (here or elsewhere) is free for any use.

    If somebody wants to make an archive, they don't really have to pay attention to copyright until the time comes to make that archive public. In the USA, the Betamax VCR case established that it's Fair Use to make a personal copy to read once later; and realistically, there's no way to enforce it even if you go beyond that (which VCR owners regularly did, taping permanent home-video libraries). Even posting the archive publicly may be legal as long as it's just an archive and you take the appropriate steps to take infringing material down when you're notified (such as through a DMCA take-down notice in the USA). In fact, all of this stuff should already be on the Wayback Machine and similar web archives, and it would take affirmative action by an infringed editor to get it removed.

    It would still be better to have everything explicitly licensed, so that you can make a fork and open it for active editing, copy text wholesale to Wikipedia or the like, or even just publish your archive without having to worry about take-down notices. Unfortunately, it's hard to do this after the horse is out of the barn, so to speak. We could start posting something, like on Wikipedia, saying that every contributor licenses their contributions under CC-BY or whatever, but that wouldn't affect past contributions, so you still wouldn't be able to make an archive without checking the dates of every edit. Since contributors sometimes copy material from one article to another, you'd even have to trust that they only copied material from after the notice went up, which isn't realistic. So it seems too late now.