How licensing works

Copyright symbol

Every time a work is created, when a textbook is written or a photograph is taken, that work is automatically protected by copyright. This legal protection prevents others from using the work in ways the maker did not intend such as making copies of the work or putting the work online without permission from the creator. This copyright status is called “all rights reserved”.

Public Domain Symbol

A creative work is in the public domain when its copyright has expired, was forfeited, or is otherwise inapplicable. This most often occurs when the author of a creative work has been dead for many years. This length of time can vary as specified under US copyright laws. Most resources created by employees of the federal government as part of their job automatically reside in the public domain. These works have “no rights reserved,” and can, therefore, be used or modified by anyone with no restrictions.

Creative Commons Licenses a.k.a. Open Licenses

OER reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.

What is an open license?

An open license, according to, “grants permission to access, re-use and redistribute a work with few or no restrictions.” The most commonly used intellectual property license for OER that permits free use and re-purposing is Creative Commons licensing. Creative Commons licenses work with copyright to automatically give you a set of usage rights pertaining to that work. That means rather than having to ask for permissions each time you’d like to use an item, such as is the case with all rights reserved works, these materials have permissions for use established in advance.

You do not need to become a copyright/licensing expert in order to use open educational resources in your course. A librarian can help answer questions you may have about permissions. 

Why does it matter?

Open educational resources are course materials that are freely available and openly licensed so you can do the 5 R’s with the content: revise, remix, reuse, redistribute, and retain. You can download the material, tailor it to your course, save a copy locally, and share it publicly with attribution.

Types of open licenses

Creative Commons licenses are the most popular licenses for open educational resources because they’re easy to create and understand. Other popular types of open licenses include open source licenses (common in programming) and open data licenses. The following provides more information about Creative Commons licenses.

Creative Commons License Conditions

Creative Commons provides six different licenses. These licenses are based on conditions that a creator can apply to future uses of their work. All six licenses require at least Attribution (CC-BY). The Creative Commons website offers explanations and examples of their licenses, and the options are also summarized below:

Attribution (CC-BY)

You must give credit to the creator, but not in a way that suggests that they endorse your use. 

ShareAlike (SA)

You can copy, distribute, display, perform, and modify the work, but you must distribute any modifications using the same share-alike license. You can still use and distribute the unaltered work without the SA condition (see this blog post from Molly Kleinman). For example, you could include an unedited CC BY-SA image in a slideshow that is distributed under another license.

NonCommercial (NC)

You can copy, distribute, display, perform, and (unless the creator has chosen No Derivatives) modify the work unless you’re doing so commercially. The Creative Commons FAQ states that commercial uses are those “primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or monetary compensation.” The US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that educators at nonprofit educational institutions may have copies printed, even when commercial entities make a profit on such transactions.

NoDerivatives (ND)

You can copy, distribute, display, perform, but not modify the work. If you want to modify such a work, you must seek permission from the creator. Transferring a work from one format to another (from streaming video to DVD, for example) is not a modification (blog post from Molly Kleinman).

Public domain and CC0

CC0 mark means the creator has waived all rights (even attribution) and has dedicated the work to the public domain; there are no restrictions on how public domain works can be used. US federal government works and works whose copyright has expired are also in the public domain.


This is what the six Creative Commons license icons look like

Spectrum of licenses, from most to least open:

Ordering of Creative Commons licenses from most to least permissive
“Ordering of Creative Commons licenses from most to least permissive” by is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Chart showing which uses are permitted for each open license type:

“Creative Commons Licenses Infographic” by ricardo56 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This content is adapted from the following works:

Adopt OER” by Open Education Consortium, licensed under CC BY 4.0
Faculty: Creating OERs” by Open Education Consortium is licensed under CC BY 4.0
What is Creative Commons?” by National Copyright Unit is licensed under CC BY 4.0
Creating, Licensing, and Publishing” by Lumen Learning is licensed under CC BY 4.0
About Open Licenses” Library DIY by Open Oregon is licensed under  CC BY 4.0

Unless otherwise noted the material on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  International License.