Understanding Open Licences

Originally published 17 September 2015 - by Patrina Law (Updated July 2017 by OEPS team)

The following is from the Creative Commons (CC) website and is summary of the types of open licence that exist and why you might consider using them. You do not have to register to use a Creative Commons licence.

The Creative Commons copyright licenses and tools forge a balance inside the traditional “all rights reserved” setting that copyright law creates. Our tools give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. The combination of our tools and our users is a vast and growing digital commons, a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law.

Some platforms (for example, YouTubeFlickr) will allow you to chose a licence for content you upload. Others may place an assumption that all content is copyright of the publisher of the platform, not the content within it. When publishing open educational resources, check the licence of the platform host (e.g. your college or university) to ensure that any work you publish within that, can be recognised for the licence you apply to it.

It is important, when you have chosen your licence, that you link to the appropriate page on the Creative Commons website that explains your licence, and use the CC logo appropriate to the licence you have chosen.

There are different types of open licence but the most common used for a range of resources are those produced by Creative Commons. According to CC in a recent report during 2015 over 1 billion items will have been given Creative Commons licences!

Creatives commons licences diagram by Clint Lalonde - most free to least free

These are different types of licence that you might see:

OER licences
  • Public domain
  • Attribution: CC BY
    others can distribute, remix, tweak and build on your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for original creation.  The most open licence available.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike: CC BY-SA
    others can distribute, remix, tweak and build on your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for original creation and licence their new creations under identical terms. 
  • Attribution-NonCommercial: CC BY-NC
    others can remix, tweak and build upon your work non-commerically, their new works must acknowledge you and be non-commercial but they don’t have to use the same licence terms for derivative works
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike: CC BY-NC-SA
    others can remix, tweak and build upon your work non-commercially as long as they credit you and licence their new creations under the identical terms.
Not OER licences
  • Attribution-NoDerivs: CC BY-ND
    others can redistribute unchanged and attributed to you, commercially and non-commercially.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs: CC BY-NC-ND
    others can only download and share as long as they credit you, but they cannot change them or use them commercially

See Creative Commons licenses for more details about each of these licences

Choosing a licence when creating and reusing OER

When remixing different OER it is important to pay attention to both the licence of the material you are going to reuse as this may restrict how you can reuse it and how differently licensed materials affect what licence you are able to give the new resource you create. It is important to ensure that you license any new material correctly.

You cannot give a less restrictive licence to material that was originally licensed more restrictively, for example you cannot give a resource a CC-BY licence if one component of the new resource was originally licensed CC-BY-SA. The table also clearly shows the impact of licensing your own material CC-BY: it gives the biggest potential for the resource to be reused in different contexts. Note that any resource with a ND (no derivatives) attribution cannot be remixed!  

Example: Creative Commons publishing at The Open University

The Open University publishes, through OpenLearn, thousands of hours of learning content under a Creative Commons licence, so-called CC-BY-NC-SA. The University's rationale is explained below:

  • BY (relates to Attribution): They recognise that, for some users, their content could be more effective on platforms other than the ones they chose for initial distribution. Therefore they support users or organisations who want to republish the material to other locations. All republished content must be attributed (while still properly attributing and linking back to the content owner as per the requirements of the licence).
  • SA (Share Alike): They expect others to share content under the same licence.
  • NC (Non-Commercial): The NC licence enables the OU to maximize the amount and accessibility of freely available OU content in the public domain without undermining the OU's social and business activities. In this context Non-Commercial is understood as follows: "We do not expect individual users or organisations to use our content for commercial purposes (where the use of the content has a commercial value) including without limitation."

The Open University explains its open educational media operating policy on its OER website.

Find out more

If you're interested please read this excellent article on the history of the Creative Commons movement.

Image Source: Creative Commons via Clint Lalonde on Twitter (screenshot)

Some of the content of this article is remixed from material which now appears in the Open Educational Practice course Becoming an open educator which the OEPS project has created.


Last modified: Wednesday, 19 Jul 2017, 13:15