Copyright and Creative Commons


For more context about why open licenses came into existence, let’s first review copyright.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection granted by U.S. law to the creators of “original works of authorship” including scholarly and creative works. Creators do not have to register their work or attach a copyright notice in order for copyright protection to apply to the work; the protection exists automatically from the time the work is created.

What “rights” are protected under U.S. Copyright Law?

Copyright holders have exclusive rights to:

  1. Reproduce their work
  2. Prepare derivative works
  3. Distribute copies of their work
  4. Perform their work publicly
  5. Display their work publicly

These protections not only qualify for scholarly work; even napkin doodles are protected by copyright. Kind of counterintuitive, right?

Watch this presentation for an overview  of copyright, fair use, and OER in education and scholarship.

Creative Commons licenses

As we learned in the above Prezi, copyright law impacts information dissemination and production. Since creators automatically retain five exclusive rights under copyright, the law impacts how a work can be used and distributed. This can make it challenging to integrate intellectual materials into educational settings.

We know that OERs have Creative Commons (CC) licenses. So when did CC come onto the scene? The Creative Commons organization was founded in 2001 by legal scholars, artists, and activists to  develop a legal framework that runs parallel to U.S. copyright law so that authors of creative and intellectual materials could retain their copyright, and decide how others use their work. They wanted to find some middle ground between the restrictions of traditional copyright and the ‘free wheeling’ public domain. This ethos is related to the free culture movement, the open source software movement, and the open access movement in scholarly publishing.

CC licenses permit users to:

  1. Retain the right to own, archive, and make copies of the content
  2. Reuse – content can be reused in its unaltered form
  3. Revise – content can be adapted, adjusted, modified, and altered
  4. Remix – original or revised content can be combined with other content to create something new
  5. Redistribute – copies of the content can be shared with others in its original, revised or remixed form

This quick video provides a recap.

Read about the licenses in plain language on the Creative Commons website.

The image below shows the 5 icons that represent different components in CC licenses.

Creative Commons license symbols and explanation

As you noticed from the Creative Commons website, there is a continuum of CC licenses to choose from. Four of the six licenses are considered appropriate for OERs.

diagram of Creative Commons licenses considered OER

Best Practices

As a creator of intellectual content, you can use the Creative Commons license chooser to help you decide what license works for you.

As an adopter of OERs, you always need to attribute the work of others.

Just like you cite and provide references in your scholarship, when you teach with course materials developed by someone else, you should always attribute materials by displaying the name of the author and the type of CC license that accompanies their work.

By properly attributing the author you ensure:

  • The intellectual property rights of the author are preserved (all CC licenses require you to cite the author to be in compliance with the license…emphasis on the “BY”)
  • The provenance of the work is documented – this is fundamental to tracing authority and relevance of  course materials
  • Clear indication of exactly how the resource can be shared or customized based on the provisions of the CC license (for ex., Does the license allow commercial or non-commercial use?
  • Any non-OER materials can be distinguished from CC licensed materials (Non-OERs might be library subscribed material or newspaper articles) so as not to confuse or misrepresent information to potential adopters

You’ll notice I have a Creative Commons license for this site (on the right side of the page). It’s convenient to embed the CC license icon and URL on websites and digital files.


Discussion Questions

1. Why are “ND” non-derivitive Creative Commons licenses considered out of scope for OERs? In other words, why is a learning material with an “ND” license not called an OER?
2. If you were to assign a CC license to learning materials you created, what license would you choose? Why?

Write both responses on this form.

Learn more:

OER Copyright and Fair Use Module

CUNY Fair Use and Copyright guide


Portions from the copyright and fair use sections in the Introduction are remixed from the OER Copyright and Fair Use Module by Nora Almeida, licensed under a Creative Commons (CC BY) Attribution.