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4 Copyright

What rights to copyright owners have?

Different countries have copyright laws, so the answer will vary depending on the origin of the work. In Canada, copyright holders retain the exclusive legal right to produce, reproduce, publish or perform an original literary, artistic, dramatic or musical work.1 This protection is automatic and applies to your work the moment it is created. The duration of copyright is dependant on the duration of the author’s life. In Canada, the work is in copyright for the author’s lifetime plus 50 years.

What does it mean to license your work?

It is within your exclusive rights as a copyright holder to authorize others to reproduce, adapt, rent, and perform (among other activities) your work. The authorization for others to use your work is referred to as a “license”. The terms of the license will vary depending on the nature of the work and what the individual seeking the license (i.e. the licensee) wishes to do with it.2

Are all instructors at liberty to make their intellectual property open?

The creator of the work is generally the copyright owner, however, this may not always be the case, an employer may hold copyright to works produced during the course of your employment.

It is important to verify if your employer has any policies surrounding intellectual property. In the case of many Canadian universities, copyright remains with the creator. Colleges tend to have different policies, with intellectual property rights being held by the employer. This may also be addressed in an employment contract. You may have transferred all or some of your exclusive rights to a publisher.

If you have previously published work that you would like to reuse in an OER, make sure to check your author/copyright transfer agreement. Some publishers require authors to transfer some or all of their copyrights upon publication of a work, potentially impacting its future in other resources. This is difficult with previously published journal articles, but resources are available for books. The Author’s Alliance offers an excellent resource on Understanding Rights Reversion: When, Why, & How to Regain Copyright and Make Your Book More Available

Where can I find a license to apply to my work?

Creative Commons licenses provide and easy way to manage the copyright terms that attach automatically to all creative material under copyright. With a core suit of six copyright licenses, the selection of one will allow your material to be shared and reused under terms that are flexible and legally sound.3

You can learn more about the layers of the Creative Commons licenses here: creativecommons.org/licenses.

There are also other alternatives to the Creative Commons Licenses available: https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/facultyoertoolkit/chapter/creative-commons-alternatives.

If you have previously published work that you would like to reuse in an OER, make sure to check your author/copyright transfer agreement for details on reuse. Some publishers require authors to transfer some or all of their copyrights upon publication of a work, potentially impacting its future reuse in other resources.

View this helpful video on Creative Commons Licenses for Non-Profit Organizations:

How do I decide which license to adopt?

OERs are meant to be flexible and allow for maximum dissemination. When choosing a license, consider the rights you want to grant future users?

  • You can learn more about the spectrum of licenses offered by the Creative Commons in their Licenses and Examples guide.
  • Some funding agencies require the use of a specific license when creating OERs. If you receive funding, be sure to check the funding policy requirements. For example, the eCampusOntario Open Licensing Policy requires that projects funded through their programs should be licensed under a CC BY 4.0 attribution license.

“Spectrum” By Creative Commons.

This is a spectrum of available Creative Commons licenses, from most to least open. The green area indicates licenses that meet the definition of a “free cultural work.” These are works that can be the most readily used, shared, and remixed by others.

Spectrum” By Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Why is the CC-BY the recommended license?

Advocates of open, including members of the Open Textbook Committee, recommend the adoption of a Creative Commons Attribution International (CC BY) license for OERs and open textbooks. It is believed this Creative Commons license is the most flexible and allows for maximum dissemination. It also meets all of the criteria outlined in the 5R’s of Openness. Advocates within the community point out that other licenses reduce a user’s remix and reuse options. Read the full statement for reasons why this license is believed to be the ideal choice by advocates.

Learn more about the CC BY Attribution 4.0 International License, which includes attribution details and the full legal code.

Does this mean that commercial publishers can use my work?

When a CC-BY license is applied to a work, anyone  can do anything they want with it as long as attribution is provided to the creators. As the Rebus Community explains, this is entirely possible in theory, but not necessarily how it works in practice; the attribution requirement can be a deterrent as the original (free) content must be linked to, devaluing the commercial product. You can read more here.

The following sources provide more background on this:

How do I apply a CC license to my original content?

Marking your work with a CC license lets the world know how you want others to use it. The Creative Commons offers excellent resources on how to mark your work, covering a range of different formats. The marking your work with a CC license webpage offers guidance on how to mark formats like webpages, offline documents, images, presentations, audio, video, and many more.

How do I find openly licensed content?

There are a number of different resources you can use to find Creative Commons licensed content:

How do I properly attribute the CC-licensed material I am using?

A condition present in all CC licenses is attribution. The Creative Commons recommends the TASL rule of thumb when providing attribution. This stands for Title, Author, Source, License.Attribution doesn’t need to be too complicated – the license just asks you to be reasonable. The Creative Commons has a best practices for attribution guide that provides examples of what “good and not so good” attribution looks like.

They also recommend a few resources that provide examples of attribution using a variety of different formats:

How do I build a derivative work from other CC licensed content?

When reusing and building on other people’s works, the first thing to check is that the licenses applied to the work are compatible. There are several resources that can help here:

It’s important to always attribute the original work in any derivative work that has been created. Even the simple addition of a colour change or the addition of words to a work should be documented. These resources give examples of how to provide attribution to material that you’ve modified:

How can I tell if content is openly licensed?

It is important to carefully examine the licensing conditions of the third-party material you are including in your OER. The following tips have been adapted from the BC Open Textbook Authoring Guide5 on how to navigate the Internet when using external sources:

  • Just because you find something on the Internet, it doesn’t mean you are free to use it
  • Look for copyright information (who owns it) and licensing information (what are the conditions of use laid by the owner or copyright holder).
  • If the copyright and licensing information isn’t immediately apparent on a website, click around and look at links such as “Terms and Conditions” and “Permissions”.
  • If the copyright for is in the public domain, look for a clear marking of this.
  • Be careful when using images found online. A photograph of a centuries old painting that you think is in the public domain may be copyrighted and released with a strict license (“All Rights Reserved”). See “Who Gets the Attribution for an Attribution” under Images: Captions, Attributions and Citations
  • If you can’t find a copyright statement or copyright license, seek permission. If you don’t receive permission, don’t use it.
  • Even if a website is labelled as “open”, unless the material is clearly marked with an open copyright license or uses a public domain tool, seek permission. If you don’t receive permission, don’t use it.
  • Don’t use a resource for which one-time permission has been granted by the creator. (Creative Commons license permit unlimited usage). Instead, if you find material that you want to use but hasn’t been released with an open copyright license, try contacting the author or creator and ask if he/she will consider doing so.
  • Keep the track of the material you are using. More information of content tracking is below.

What if I am using work that isn’t openly licensed?

If using third party content that isn’t openly licensed is integral to your work, seeking permission from the copyright holder is necessary. Simply asking for permission isn’t enough in this case; it is important to be clear to the copyright owner that the material will be released under an open license.

Challenges may arise when trying to obtain permissions from a copyright owner. They may include:

  • Cost: there may be a fee associated with allowing third-party content to be used in an OER, if permitted at all. Fees and payment options will vary from rights holder to rights holder.
  • Unlocatable or unresponsive owner: It’s not always possible to determine who the copyright holder is, or it’s possible you may never hear back from the party.

Give yourself plenty of time when seeking permission (8-10 weeks is recommended) in case you need to find an alternative resource.

How do I ask for permission from a copyright holder?

How you ask for permission will vary depending on the rightsholder. More established rightsholders and publishers will often have a rights and permissions department in place to handle these requests. Look out for online forms that are required to be filled out. In other cases, you will have to send your request in the form of a letter or email. It’s important to be specific about how you are going to be using the material you are requesting. Providing as much information about the item’s use as you can.

Here is a sample permissions letter that you can send to a rights holder. Feel free to insert and remove details so that your request is relevant to your work.

Dear [recepient’s name],

I am developing an open textbook called [insert name of text/OER], funded by eCampus Ontario. This open textbook is intended to be an Open Educations Resource (OER) and will be freely available to anyone in the public via openlibrary.ecampusontario.ca. Under the eCampus Policy Terms, this work will be licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 attribution license.

I would like to use the following material within this open textbook:

[Include links, page numbers, any relevant information that will help the rightsholder to identify the material]

I am flexible and open to discuss any restrictions with regard to modification. Please share any specifics related to acknowledgement to ensure proper attribution and recognition.

In granting permission, you assert that you are the rights holder. If you are not, please provide any contact information you may have.

You may contact me at: [insert preferred methods of communication]

Thank you,


How do I properly attribute a work that isn’t openly licensed?

Here is an example of how to mark an item where you have received permission directly from the copyright holder:

The photo Cats cuddling in a basket is © 2017 John Smith. All rights reserved, used with permission.

You can read more about marking practices from the Creative Commons in the following article.

How do I keep track of permissions for everything I’m using?

When you creating, adapting, or adopting an OER, it is imperative to track the resources that you are including, particularly any modifications that are made and permissions that you have acquired. We’ve developed an OER Content Tracker that will help you to capture the relevant information needed to track all of your external resources.

The BC Open Textbook Authoring Guide also offers suggestions for tracking external content in the section  How to Ensure that all Content is “Open” By BC Campus.

  1. Canadian Intellectual Property Office, “What is Copyright?” http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/cipointernet-internetopic.nsf/eng/wr03719.html?Open&wt_src=cipo-cpyrght-main
  2. What is a licence By the South African Institute for Distance Education is licensed under CC BY 3.0
  3. Frequently Asked Questions by Creative Commons CC BY
  4. Title, Author, Source, License By Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0
  5. How to Ensure that all Content is “Open” By BC Campus is licensed under CC BY 4.0