Open Licensing

What is a License?

Using the work of others requires permission from the copyright holder. A license is a legal statement of permission that explains who can use your intellectual property and how. Think of it like a movie contract. When Sony works with Marvel to make a Spiderman movie, they are licensing the character of Spiderman and his universe for use in their own productions. These types of copyright licenses require extensive discussions to hash out what the licensee (Sony) is allowed to do with the licensed property (Spiderman) and for how long. 

Whether you are a creator or someone who wants to reuse creative works in your own content, it’s likely that you don’t have the same time, experience, and money that Sony has to negotiate contracts. Furthermore, it can be time-consuming to answer emails from people who want to share a video you created or adapt an image you’ve shared. Here’s where open licenses can help.

What are Open Licenses?

All OER are made available under some type of open license, which is a set of authorized permissions from the rightsholder of a work for any and all users. The most popular of these licenses are Creative Commons (CC) licenses, which are customizable copyright licenses that allow others to reuse, adapt, and re-publish content with few or no restrictions. CC licenses allow creators to explain in plain language how their works can be used by others.

Open licenses do not replace copyright; they work with copyright law to change the default setting from “All Rights Reserved” to “Some Rights Reserved.” Under U.S. law, copyright is the exclusive right to dictate how users copy, distribute, and adapt a work. By default, all of those rights are reserved by the author, and anyone who wants to use it needs to get permission from the author in the form of a license. 

Open licenses are a particular kind of license that enable authors to grant blanket permissions to everyone, which makes it much easier for people to legally use the material in the ways the license allows.

Why Use Creative Commons Licenses?

Creative Commons licenses give others a variety of permissions up front, making a faster and more transparent process. Adding CC licenses to your work can help ensure that your work is shared or reused as you see fit. 

Creative Commons Attribution License graphic

The graphic design of the licenses is a useful tool in its own right, and each license can be read in its full legal language and an easier-to-read simple description:

The Four Components of Creative Commons Licenses

Cc-by_new_white.svg.pngAttribution (BY)Proper attribution must be given to the original creator of the work
Cc-nc_white.pngNoncommercial (NC)The work cannot be used for commercial means such as for-profit advertising
Cc-nd.svg.pngNo Derivative Works (ND)The work cannot be altered or “remixed.” Only identical copies of the work can be redistributed without additional permission from the creator. 
Cc-sa.pngShare Alike (SA)Iterations of the original work must be made available under the same license terms.

Image Source

These elements are combined to create a total of six creative commons licenses, all of which can be viewed on the CC website.

What About the Public Domain?

The Creative Commons‘ Public Domain Mark is not a license, nor is it a legal tool for rights holders. Rather, it is a symbol that is intended for use when someone believes that a work is in the public domain; i.e., that there are no existing rights in the work. Rightsholders cannot apply a Public Domain Mark to their own work, as it is only to be used on works for which there is no rightsholder.

Since it can be very difficult to conclusively determine that there are no existing copyrights in a work, this mark is primarily used only on very old materials, where the rights status is uncontested worldwide.

Material on this page was adapted from Iowa State University’s OER Starter Kit page under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Additional material was adapted from Erik Christiansen and Krysta McNutt’s ABOER Starter Kit, SPARC’s SPARC Open Education Leadership Program curriculum page, and The University of Minnesota’s CC0 and Public Domain page under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.