Social Problems OER/Affordable Project Participant Guide

Open licenses

Open Licenses

Now that you're ready to think about course content, it's finally time to talk about OER. Open educational resources (OER) are educational materials that:

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

On this page, we will discuss the types of open licenses and how to apply them.

What is an open license?

An open license sits on top of the copyright for a document and specifies what can and cannot be done with a work. It grants permissions and states restrictions. Broadly speaking, an open license is one that grants permission to access, re-use and redistribute a work with few or no restrictions (definition from

Please watch the short video below for an explanation of open licenses:


Open Licensing Transcript (Links to an external site.)

Difference between traditional copyright (all rights reserved) and openly licensed content 

Traditional copyright:

Open license added:

Automatically granted at the moment of creation - no further steps needed

You add an open license to your work to let users know which permissions you grant 

Copyright holder may give permission for certain uses if you contact them (this can take a long time)

Copyright holder specifies permission in advance for certain uses of their work (shortcut!)

You can make a fair use argument for educational reuse without the copyright holder’s permission, but that argument is only good for your course

You can share your open course widely because downstream users already have permission to reuse all the content under the terms of the open license

Creative Commons

There are many open licenses developed for different areas of knowledge. However, when it comes to open educational resources the most typical and common open licenses used are Creative Commons Licenses.

A bit of background. You have probably heard of an open source license, a type of license for computer software that allows source code to be used, modified and shared under defined terms. The free software movement was launched in 1983. Since then the folks in the computer software world have been widely developing and sharing open source code with a clear licensing system. Additionally, other open licenses in computer-related areas have been developed, such as open database licenses and open game licenses.

But what about the rest of the knowledge materials that are not software related?

In 2001, inspired by the open source license movement, a group of experts comprised of educators, technologists, legal scholars, investors, entrepreneurs and philanthropists gathered together to come up with a set of copyright licenses that would allow creators to easily share materials that were not software code, such as blogs, photos, films, books, etc.

They founded a nonprofit organization called Creative Commons and developed the first set of open licenses in 2002. These Creative Commons licenses brought clarity and ease to sharing materials online.

In summary, there are many open licenses developed for different areas of knowledge (please see the diagram below). Creative Commons licenses are mostly widely used copyright licenses that would allow creators to easily share materials that were notsoftware code, such as blogs, photos, films, books, etc.

Other open licenses include:

  • Open Hardware Licenses
  • Open Source Software Licenses
  • Open Game Licenses
  • Open Database Licenses

Decoding CC licenses:

cc-by symbol

CC-BY: Users can do the 5 R’s with the work as long as they provide attribution.

cc-by-sa symbol

CC BY Share-Alike: Users provide attribution AND license their derivative work exactly the same way as the original.

cc-by-nc symbol

CC BY Non-Commercial: Users provide attribution AND are not allowed to use the work for any commercial purpose.

cc-by-nd symbol

CC BY No Derivatives: The work can’t be changed, so users can’t do the 5 R’s. Doesn’t meet the definition of open educational resources!

When you're learning about open licenses, it's common to focus on what you can't do with content under the different license types. Taking a step back, the larger point is that there is much more that you can do with openly licensed content than with traditionally copyrighted content.


Content on this page was modified from "Open License" (Links to an external site.) by Boyoung Chae (Links to an external site.)Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (Links to an external site.), licensed under CC BY 4.0

Creative Commons

Choose a CC License