Module 7

Openly Licensed Materials

This module simplifies a very complex subject. This module is offered for information only, and is not a substitute for legal advice.


You may be considering using openly licensed content in your teaching. Open licences are a set of conditions applied to an original work that grant permission to anyone to make use of the work as long as they follow the conditions of the licence.

A work can mean any original creation — like a textbook, video, song, document, or piece of software — that can be copyright-protected.

The creator retains copyright in the work, but can choose to openly license it if they want others to be able to use it freely, build on it, customize it, or alter it. Applying an open licence makes permissions transparent, explicit, and straightforward.

Some open licences give permission to anyone to use the work at no cost and may allow anyone to modify the work with little or no restriction. Typically, all open licences require the acknowledgement of the original author’s work and a link back to the licence applied.

There are several open licences that follow these principles; the most common are Creative Commons licences. There are other licences for specific kinds of works, such as software.

Creative Commons licences use icons and simple language so that creators can make their intentions clear and users can be certain that their use of the work is legal.

There are six Creative Commons licences available that let you know how the work can be used. Here is a breakdown of some of the terms and conditions expressed in a Creative Commons licence. You may see a combination of some of these terms in the spectrum of licences.

Image of Creative Commons licences‘BY’ represents attribution. You will see this icon on all Creative Commons licences. This icon means that you must provide attribution by giving credit to the creator of this work in any way they have requested.

‘ND’ means no derivatives. This icon means that modified versions of the original work cannot be shared with others.

’SA’ means share alike. This icon means that the original work can be modified but the new work must be shared under the same licence.

’NC’ means non-commercial. This icon means that you can use the original work for non-commercial purposes, as-is or modified.

All six Creative Commons licences require the creator to be credited, and a link to the licence.

A Creative Commons licence may be indicated with:

  • an abbreviation,
  • descriptive text, or
  • an icon.

Creative Commons posts both a human readable summary of each licence and the legal code. The summary is not a substitute for the code.

You can learn more about the spectrum of  Creative Commons licences by visiting If a licence does not permit the desired use, contact the copyright owner to ask permission.

Not all material you find online is openly licensed, even though it is freely accessible. Some material, for example, might be free to read, download and share, but it cannot be modified in any way. An example of this might be some government documents, or material found in an institutional repository.

For support for open licences and suggestions about where you can locate open material, consult the person or office your institution has designated to help with copyright questions or whomever has been designated to help with open scholarship. Your institution’s library is a good place to start.