Aaron Swartz was working on a book before he committed suicide in 2013. The draft was later published under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA) license. It can be downloaded for free from tons of sites on the Internet.

IEEE is charging $30 for a copy of it.

Check it out: http://goo.gl/1EwdLn (click that big yellow Full Text button to see the price).

Aaron was vehemently against sites like IEEE, Elsevier, and JSTOR. Putting aside for a moment the audacity of IEEE's choice to make money off his work, can a company choose to sell something that's licensed under CC or some other permissive license?

And if so, where does that money go?

And IEEE, at least for IEEE membership, is a nonprofit. Is this legal?

I checked it out and there are other examples where they are charging for content that the authors released for free:

  • Engineering a Safer World:Systems Thinking Applied to Safety written by Nancy Leveson

    They split that book into 25 individual chapters, each one costing $15, for a grand total of $375. And it's an extra $15 if you want the book cover/table of contents! http://goo.gl/QVmRvU)

  • Open Access by Peter Suber. See Suber's blog post from May 2014, "Don't buy the IEEE edition of my book." https://goo.gl/kO3lkB

    That's the same as the other book, split into chapters and sold for $15 each.

There is no way an individual would fall for this. But libraries and universities may not be checking. I have seen tons of posts about publishers taking advantage of institutions. Is this another example to slip one past the librarian?

  • One part of this question implies that nonprofit organizations can't sell things, or can't sell them for a profit. That is of course untrue.
    – phoog
    Jul 12, 2016 at 14:51
  • IEEE has to make money some how. I dropped my membership after I realized they are a total joke. Just a bunch of PhDs that pat each other on the back and do nothing useful. Jul 12, 2016 at 16:50
  • 1
    It's important to emphasize that CC BY-NC-SA includes the Non Commercial clause. The CC variants without the NC clause and more general, all open source (as defined OSI) or free (as defined by FSF) licenses allow selling. Jul 14, 2016 at 9:37

2 Answers 2


A document can be distributed under more than one license. Just because it has been made available under a CC license for free, doesn't mean that IEEE can't negotiate a different license with different terms that allow them to sell the content. (This is similar to the way that a software library can be available for free under a license that permits non-commercial use, but also be made available for a fee for commercial use.)

If you want to know whether IEEE is legally selling Aaron Swartz's manuscript, you can contact Morgan & Claypool, the publisher that owns the copyright, and ask them whether this use by IEEE has been authorized by them. For the other documents you mention, contact MIT Press. Etc.

  • 2
    The book IEEE is selling has an ISBN of 9781627051699 and is published by Morgan and Claypool and appears to be freely available from the publisher under the CC by-nc-sa license.
    – StrongBad
    Jul 11, 2016 at 23:12
  • 4
    @StrongBad Yes, I know. So? I think my answer makes it clear why that doesn't mean IEEE's sales are illegal.
    – ff524
    Jul 11, 2016 at 23:13
  • Can a book with a single ISBN be licenses in two non-compatible ways?
    – StrongBad
    Jul 11, 2016 at 23:15
  • 10
    @StrongBad Sure, why not? ISBN has nothing to do with licensing.
    – ff524
    Jul 11, 2016 at 23:15

[…] can a company choose to sell something that's licensed under CC or some other permissive license?

It depends on the license.

Creative Commons has six different license types:

  • CC BY
  • CC BY-SA
  • CC BY-ND
  • CC BY-NC

Works licensed under the first three licenses may be sold, works licensed under the last three licenses (with NC, which stands for NonCommercial) may not be sold (at least not for profit¹).

As the work in question is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA, does this mean IEEE is allowed to derive financial profit from distributing it?

  • No, if the IEEE got this work under the terms of that license.
  • Yes, if the IEEE got this work under the terms of another license (e.g., if this is another copy that was licensed under CC BY-SA instead, or if they have an agreement with the copyright owner).

¹ It’s not strictly defined what counts as non-commercial in the sense used by Creative Commons. For example, some argue that you may sell the work if the money is used to cover distribution costs (e.g., for printing the work), some argue that you may not show advertisements on the page where you offer the work for free, etc.

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