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I'm working at Pl@ntNet which contributes a lot of plant observations (around 20M) online under cc-by-sa.

On the app, a user can edit their profile and change their display name. But doing so will currently not change their already published data author name. Meaning that for a given observation published by an individual named "Hugo", the user changes their profile name to "Bob", the observation already published stays in "Hugo".

I did check the CreativeCommons.org FAQ and all the materials on creative common website and did not find any reason why we couldn't update the past published data to update the user name, if they want to.

My questions is:
➡️ Can we update the displayed name of the author on their past work (here observations) when whe update their name in the present? If we can, under which conditions?

Example of user creation (observation) https://identify.plantnet.org/weurope/observations/1013811167 Term of use of the service https://identify.plantnet.org/terms_of_use

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  • 1
    it would really help to have a link to the T&Cs of the site to understand the ownership (copyright, rights given up/transferred by the users to the operator of the site) of the published information. Aug 5 at 15:21
  • Note that even if you do update your name on the site, that won't update the name on any copies that others may have, be using, or have already redistributed. You'll effectively end up with two versions of the same work floating around, each with a different author listed. This can become rather confusing for all involved.
    – bta
    Aug 6 at 1:58
  • Thanks you all for all the participation, I was. It expecting such a rush! I've updated the question with an example of the creation and the term of use link Aug 7 at 6:42

3 Answers 3

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Kind of.

If we look into the terms of the CC BY-SA 4.0, we see the Section 3(a)(1)(A) requirement to “retain” the Licensor's “identification”, “including by pseudonym if designated”. So you should retain the user's chosen name in the form that you received it.

However, this identification is not immutable. For example, Section 3(a)(3) also requires: “If requested by the Licensor, You must remove any of the information required by Section 3(a)(1)(A) to the extent reasonably practicable.” Since you're dealing with electronic records, changing the attribution information is reasonably practicable. For example, Stack Overflow supports this by “dissociating” posts from a username when the account is deleted, replacing the alias/name with the numerical ID.

I think a narrow reading of the CC BY-SA 4.0 supports that you could retain the old username on the content licensed to you, at least until the user requests the attribution to be removed entirely.

But since you will already need the ability to edit attribution information on old content, it would definitely be compliant (and the courteous thing to do) to allow users to change their displayed names retroactively. I don't think that the CC BY-SA would in any way prevent you from updating old attribution information, especially when this update is requested by the user/rightsholder themselves. A change of username can be reasonably understood as a request to update the attribution information on old content.

Note that the Creative Commons rules on attribution did not appear randomly. These attribution requirements are essentially a contractual version of moral rights that are common in copyright laws (other than in US copyright law). For example, German copyright law says:

The author has the right to be identified as the author of the work. The author may determine whether the work is to bear a designation of authorship and which designation is to be used.

Note that this does not contain a limitation such as “at the time of publication”. I think that France has similarly strong recognition for moral rights.

Additional concerns:

  • Users might change their legal name.

  • It's the internet. Usernames might contain offensive or illegal content. Systems should be built with the capability to moderate accordingly. However, it would violate the CC BY-SA terms (and possibly moral rights) to change the username at your discretion, so that content from offending users would have to be removed entirely if they don't change their name “voluntarily”.

Difference in Version 2. This answer assumes the CC BY-SA 4.0 license, since the question didn't specify a version. However, the site in question seems to use CC BY-SA 2.0. This version has different attribution requirements (see section 4(c)), and does not explicitly recognize the author's right to request attribution to be removed. This does not affect whether the author has a right to remove or change their attribution per moral rights.

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    Incidentally, the use of old CC licenses is potentially risky because curing a violation of a pre-4.0 CC license does not automatically restore the license, and leaves you vulnerable to a copyright lawsuit.
    – Kevin
    Aug 5 at 19:26
  • Thank you for pointing out the old license and for the detailed answer. So it's seems possible for the author to update his name retroactively but to do so we'll probably need to explain the limitation of it's action. Aug 7 at 6:46
  • As to the system operators being able to change the name for moderation reasons, the TOS could easily have a term with wording that makes it acceptable for the system operator to do so. It could be something like 'You agree the pseudonym "user<account number>", where "<account number>" is your user account number with us, is a valid pseudonym for you under the CC BY-SA license and that it may be used for attribution of your content at our discretion.' The TOS may or may not explain why the system operator might choose to do so (i.e. various moderation reasons).
    – Makyen
    Aug 7 at 14:13
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That mostly is a matter of your own TOS.

Under CC-BY-SA, of course, the requirement is to keep the attribution and users of the content to give appropriate credit.

This is a bit of assumption: In your case, you are the distributor to which people upload the content. I assume you allow upload by users only on the condition that they are the copyright holder and that they upload the content under CC-BY-SA where the attribution is done under the (current) username.

Given this, you can have in your TOS a clause which states that content will always be attributed to the current user name. Failing to have this in the TOS you are not allowed to update or change the attribution - but you can, of course, ask people to agree to new TOS and re-license their content under their new or current nick.

Alternatively go the easy way, and give them a separate field to define how they want to see their work credited, a field separate from their nickname on your site.

(Mind, this is not legal advice, just my understanding of how things work)

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If you want to be completely on the safe side add a check box in the user name change dialog asking whether the old attributions should be changed. In this case no one will be able to complain, neither these who think you're not allowed to change it nor those who think you must.

But I agree with the most upvoted answer in that changing it would be the correct thing to do if you don't want to implement two things.

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  • This should be the correct answer: since the copyright owner can license his work how they see fit, you can change whatever you want if requested (or agreed) by the copyright owner. When a user asks to change its username you can ask if they wants their attribution renamed, because they have the right to change it.
    – Pere
    Aug 7 at 15:58

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