The definition of open educational resources (OER) includes the phrase “reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions,” but what does that really mean?

Every time a work is created, such as when a textbook is written or a photograph is 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 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 reuse it. Open licensing does not replace copyright. Open licenses work with copyright to promote shared use. This changes the copyright from “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.”

Creative Commons Licenses

For OER, 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 reuse the work in a way not permitted by the license.

License Terms

Creators or copyright holders who wish to apply a Creative Commons license to their work can choose the conditions of reuse 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 reuse in unintended ways, so care is suggested in selecting a license.

   cc Attribution by logoAttribution (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.

Licence Types

There are six possible licenses that can be derived from combining the license terms described above and assigned to materials 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.


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

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

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