How open is an open licence?


A common misconception is that ‘openly licensed’ content belongs in the public domain, and that the author gives up all of their rights to this material. This is not so. In fact, the emergence of open licences has been driven by a desire to protect a copyright holder’s rights in environments where content (particularly when digitized) can so easily be copied and shared via the internet without asking permission.

A broad spectrum of legal frameworks is emerging to govern how OER are licensed for use. Some of the legal frameworks simply allow copying, but others make provision for users to adapt the resources that they use. The best known of these is the Creative Commons (CC) licensing framework (see It provide legal mechanisms to ensure that authors of materials receive acknowledgement for their work while allowing it to be shared. Moreover, if they wish, authors adopting a CC license can seek to restrict commercial activity and/or even prevent users from adapting it. Thus, an author who applies a CC licence to their work specifically seeks to retain copyright over that work, but agrees – through the licence – to give away some of those rights.

More information about Creative Commons (CC):

  • The CC approach provides user-friendly open licences for digital materials and so avoids automatically applied copyright restrictions.
  • The CC licences take account of different copyright laws in different countries or jurisdictions and also allow for different language versions.
  • To make the licensing process as simple as possible for users, the Creative Commons site makes use of a licence generator that suggests the most appropriate licence based on a user’s response to specific questions regarding how their work can be used.
  • All of the CC licences include basic rights that are retained by the authors, asserting the author’s copyright and the granting of copyright freedoms.
  • Within this framework, the CC licences allow authors, in a user-friendly way, to grant other people the right to make copies of their work and, if they wish, to allow other people to make changes to their work without having to seek permission.
  • The CC licences also allow users to apply some restrictions on these permissions, for example, requiring attribution of the authorship of the original work, or restricting reuse of the resource for commercial purposes.

See Creative Commons licences for more information.

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Butcher, N. (2015). A basic guide to open educational resources (OER). Commonwealth of Learning, Vancouver and UNESCO. Retrieved from