What is a copyright license?
Copyright restricts the use of creative works (written text, photos, graphics, music, film etc.) to the creator unless they give explicit permission to another person or company to use their work in a particular way — think of an author allowing their book to be made into a film, or an artist allowing their artwork to be printed on a t shirt.
These permissions are called licenses, and the resulting products are called derivative works.
Traditionally, these licenses have been granted on a case-by-case basis, and require every person seeking a license to contact the creator every time, for every use.
What are the Creative Commons licenses?
Creative Commons (CC) licenses give people “a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work” (Creative Commons). Instead of requiring each person wanting to use, share or adapt the creative work to ask permission, a CC license allows the creator to indicate upfront what they will and won’t allow others to do with their work.
There are several CC licenses, each of which grants different levels of permission to the public. Each of these licenses provides conditions for appropriate use, and can be differently suited to both specific kinds of creative content and the preferences of a work’s creator(s).
Anyone is free to share & adapt the work, as long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license and indicate if changes were made to the original material.
CC-BY-SA: Attribution-Share Alike
Anyone is free to share & adapt the work, as long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made to the original material. Any derivative works must share the same license as the original material. This means that if someone remixes your work, or makes a new project that uses your work, they must also license that work under a CC-BY-SA license.
CC-BY-NC: Attribution-Non Commercial
Anyone is free to share & adapt the work for any non-commercial use, as long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license and indicate if changes were made to the original material.
CC-BY-ND: Attribution-No Derivatives
Anyone is free to share the work, as long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license and indicate if changes were made to the original material. Any derivative works may not be distributed. This means that you can make a remix or new project that makes use of the original work for private use, but cannot share or publish your derivative work.
CC-BY-NC-SA: Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike
Anyone is free to share & adapt the work for any non-commercial use, as long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made to the original material. Any derivative works must share the same license as the original material.
CC-BY-NC-ND: Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives
Anyone is free to share the work for any non commercial use, as long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made to the original material. Any derivative works may not be distributed.
These are also referred to as “open” licenses, a category that includes other kinds of licenses used for things like open source software.
Why are CC licenses important to Open Textbooks?
Open licenses are critical to open textbooks because they grant the public, including students and faculty, the right to retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute educational content without charge. These rights are referred to as the 5 Rs, and are the foundation for defining what counts as Open Educational Resources (OERs) (Open Content).
First of all, an open license guarantees free (unpaid) access to content for students. With the rising costs of textbooks, student loans, and costs of living, creating and supporting free educational materials is one way faculty and institutions can make a difference for their students.
While reducing the cost of education is already a big deal, the most permissive CC licenses also allow faculty and students the freedom to adapt content to make it work for them. With the exception of “No Derivatives” licensed work (which is generally not recognised as “open” for educational uses), CC-licensed works can be pulled apart, put back together, changed, updated, localised, translated, re-ordered, re-worked, annotated, expanded, simplified, customised, combined* and turned blue at will.
Without a CC license, any of these uses could be a violation of copyright law.
What this means in practical terms is that textbooks can be adapted to suit the needs of any given course, rather than a course being adapted to a textbook (or only using a handful of chapters out of a $200 textbook). And faculty and universities don’t have to worry about the grey areas of copyright law, or the risk of a lawsuit.
*Note: different CC licenses may or may not be compatible for combining/remixing. See CC’s license compatibility chart for more details.
Why use CC-BY specifically?
The CC-BY license is considered the gold standard for open textbooks because it allows the most freedom, and it is the only license that enables all of the 5 Rs without restriction.
Share Alike (SA) can limit remixing potential with content under different licenses
No Derivatives (ND) doesn’t allow derivative works, which means no revision or remixing, negating many of the advantages of open textbooks
Non Commercial (NC) can create uncertainty as to what qualifies as a « commercial use » (e.g. selling a printed course pack)
CC-BY lets everyone working with openly licensed educational materials to get the most value, benefit, and use possible from the work we all put in.
What are my rights when I use the CC-BY license?
If you license your work under a CC-BY license for an open textbook project (or anywhere else!), you retain the copyright, meaning the work is still yours. The license can be thought of as « some rights reserved » rather than « all rights reserved. »
- You have the right to be attributed correctly on all versions of your work, as well as any derivative works, and any changes made to your work are required to be identified.
- You also have the right to not be attributed on your work or any derivative version of it, if at any stage you decide you don’t want to be associated with it.
- Last, you have the right to change the license applied to your work at any time, BUT this will only apply to future users — anyone already using your work will retain the rights given to them in the original license.
All of these rights come with the caveat that once content is online it can circulate widely and be nearly impossible to trace. This means that practically speaking, while it is easy to remove your name or change the license on the original copy of your work, it is very difficult to do so on any other copies or derivative works. Keep this in mind at the start of your project when selecting a license.
What’s the bigger picture here?
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