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Open Educational Resources (OER): Licensing

This guide explains the basics of OER, and provides general and discipline-specific resources.


The definition of open educational resources (OER) includes the phrase “resides in the public domain or is released under an intellectual property license that permits its free use and re-purposing,” but what does that really mean?

Video: “What is an open license and how does it work?” by The Council of Chief State School Officers is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Every time a work is created, such as when a textbook is written or a photograph taken, that work is automatically protected by copyrightCopyright protection prevents others from using the work in certain ways, such as copying the work or putting the work online without permission from the creator. This is called “all rights reserved”.

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 (the length can vary as specified under US copyright laws). In addition, 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.

Copyright, Creative Commons, Public Domain

“Creative Commons: a user guide” by Simone Aliprandi, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Alternatively, when a creator or copyright holder assigns an open license to their work they are specifying how they want others to re-use it. Open licensing does not replace copyright, rather, it works with copyright to promote shared use. This changes the copyright from “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.”

Creative Commons Licenses

For open educational resources, the most widely used open licenses are the Creative Commons (CC) licenses, which make it possible for educators to freely and legally share their work. Creative Commons licenses work with copyright to automatically give users a set of usage rights pertaining to that work. When something is licensed with a Creative Commons license, users know how they are allowed to use it. Since the copyright holder retains copyright, the user may still seek the creator’s permission when they want to re-use the work in a way not permitted by the license.

Material above adapted from: “What is Creative Commons” by National Copyright Unit, Copyright Advisory Groups (Schools and TAFEs) and is licensed under CC BY 4.0

License Terms

Creators or copyright holders who wish to apply a Creative Commons license to their work can choose the conditions of re-use and modification by selecting one or more of the restrictions listed below. Every Creative Commons license, except the Public Domain designation, requires users to give attribution to the creator of the work. Other restrictions are optional, and may prevent re-use in unintended ways, so care is suggested in applying the options.

   cc Attribution by logo  Attribution (BY) - You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes    were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.

   cc-NonCommercial logo  Non-commercial (NC) - The material cannot be used for commercial purposes.

   CC Sharealike Logo Share Alike (SA) - If you remix, transform or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.

     CC Non-Derivatives Logo  No Derivative Works (ND) - If you remix, transform or build upon the material, you may not distribute the modified material.

Note: works licensed with the ND restriction are not considered OER.

Modified from: Understanding Creative Commons by BC Open Ed, licensed under CC-BY 4.0. 

Licence Types

There are six possible licenses that can be derived from combining the license terms described above and assigned to open educational resources by the original creator or author. To learn more about the license designs, rationale, and structure of Creative Commons licenses, please read About the licenses by Creative Commons.

Creative Commons 7 LIcense from most free to least free

Creative Commons (CC) is an internationally active, non-profit organization that provides free licenses for creators to use so they can make their work available to the public. These licenses allow the creator to give permission for others to use their work under certain conditions.

Choose a License for your resources

Choosing a Creative Commons License is a smooth process. Just go to and start selecting the license terms for your resource/s. Screenshot taken from


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