The critical role of open licensing: a brief intro to Creative Commons for postsecondary instructors

This week we're going to take a closer look at Creative Commons (CC) licenses: what they are, why they are important, and some tips for instructors interested in either reusing CC-licensed content or applying the licenses to their own work. A nonprofit founded in 2001, Creative Commons maintains a suite of open copyright licenses that creators can apply to their work to provide advance permission for broad sharing and reuse. By granting these permissions, creators can empower a global audience to freely share and reuse their work for noble purposes like education and research.

To hammer home the fundamental importance of open licensing to OER and open pedagogy, the following quote from David Wiley (2017) is instructive:
  1. We learn by the things we do. 
  1. Copyright restricts what we are permitted to do. 
  1. Consequently, copyright restricts the ways we are permitted to learn. 
  1. Open removes these restrictions, permitting us to do new things. 
  1. Consequently, open permits us to learn in new ways.
The power of open licensing lies in its capacity to (1) free creative works from the restrictions of the “All rights reserved” copyright regime and (2) grant the 5R permissions that make OER and open pedagogy possible.

Although there are many kinds of open licenses, the CC licenses are the most established and broadly applicable. In the 16 years since CC was founded, the number of works with CC licenses has grown to over 1.2 billion. Despite the importance of CC licenses and the impressive growth in the number of CC-licensed works, many instructors still have limited knowledge of them. If you are one of those instructors, this post is for you! Here are some common questions I’ve heard in the past and my most concise answers to them:

What are all the different licenses?

There are six different licenses that allow creators to apply four different conditions: attribution, noncommercial, share-alike, and no derivatives. This infographic does a good job of mapping out the different options and which conditions they include:

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 3.42.31 PM.png
            Credit: How To Attribute Creative Commons Photos by Foter, CC-BY-SA

In addition to the six licenses, there is also the CC0 public domain dedication, which allows unrestricted reuse without any conditions. If this all sounds somewhat confusing, don’t worry: 65% of CC-licensed works are shared under ‘free culture’ licenses that have a maximum of two conditions: (1) that you provide attribution to the creators and, in some cases, (2) that you share any derivative of the original under the same license that permitted you to use it in the first place (“share-alike”).

Where can I find CC-licensed content?

Finding CC-licensed content has never been easier. This is due in large part to the machine-readable layer of CC licenses, which enables CC-licensed works to be indexed and aggregated at scale by major search engines like Google. With regard to specific sources, I’ve already covered where to look for OER to adopt in your course, but there are a ton of other valuable sources for finding more granular CC-licensed materials that you can use to create your own OER or supplement the material you are already using. The Harvard Law School Library’s guide to Finding Public Domain and Creative Commons Media is one of the best around - a veritable one-stop shop with a wealth of sources to choose from.

How do I provide attribution?

Providing attribution is also much easier than it might seem. I provided an example of how to do it, above! Unlike formal citation styles, there are no complicated standards for providing attribution, so you have the freedom to format your attributions however you wish. The main thing is to make sure that you identify (1) the creator, (2) the title of the work, and (3) that applicable license. If you can, also provide hyperlinks to both the original work and the CC license summary (e.g., CC BY-SA 4.0). If that’s too complicated or you just want to save some time, check out CC’s new beta search tool, which provides perfectly formatted attributions for all of the content you discover with it.

What license should I choose for my own work?

Many open education advocates strongly endorse either CC BY or CC0, and for good reason: these options provide the broadest possible permissions and therefore the greatest benefit to open content community. That said, some creators want to retain a bit more control over how their work can be used, and it is for this reason that CC provides licenses with additional conditions.

Ultimately, the Share-Alike (SA) and Noncommercial (NC) licenses still provide extremely broad reuse permissions. Even the No Derivatives (ND) license has its place, especially for creators who feel strongly about preserving the integrity of their work. I always encourage instructors to use CC BY, but, if they aren’t comfortable with that, I’m still happy when they find a different license that meets their needs. For me, any CC license is a win relative to “All rights reserved.”

Thus ends my brief intro to CC licenses for postsecondary instructors. I hope you found it helpful! If you have any thoughts or questions about CC licensing, please add them in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!


Creative Commons (2016). State of the commons report, 2016. Retrieved from

Wiley, D. (n. d.). Defining the "open" in open content and open educational resources. Retrieved from

Wiley, D. (2017). OER-enabled pedagogy. Retrieved from


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