OER is based on a set of permissions that enable the use and modification of educational content. In this module, you will gain knowledge about the shift from traditional copyright to open licences, and how you can apply open licences to works you create, remix, and share.

Licensing Quick Start Kit

Copyleft and Open Licensing

About Copyleft and Open Licensing

Copyleft is a play on the word copyright. Copyleft is a strategy for encouraging the public's right to freely copy, share, modify and improve creative works and modified versions of those works. Copyleft describes any method that utilizes the copyright system to achieve these goals.

Copyleft as a concept is usually implemented in the details of a specific copyright licence, such as the  Creative Commons Attribution Licence or the  GNU General Public Licence that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution with no or limited restrictions. Copyright holders of creative works can choose these licences for their own works to build communities that collaboratively share and improve their creative works.


Definition of copyleft is a derivative of  What is Copyleft? by, licensed under  CC BY-SA 4.0

Open licences support creators that want to share their works freely, and allow other users more flexibility to reuse and share the creators’ works. Specific benefits include:

  • Allowing others to distribute the work freely, which in turn promotes wider circulation than if an individual or group retained the exclusive right to distribute;
  • Reducing or eliminating the need for others to ask for permission to use or share the work, which can be time consuming, especially if the work has many authors;
  • Encouraging others to continuously improve and add value to the work; and
  • Encouraging others to create new works based on the original work - e.g. translations, adaptations, or works with a different scope or focus.

OER are typically licensed under an open licensing system, with the most popular being the  Creative Commons (CC) licensing system.


Text is a derivative of  Guide to Open Licensing, by  Open Knowledge International, licensed under  CC BY 4.0

Creative Commons licences allow creators to retain certain rights while waiving some rights. There are six types of Creative Commons licence. All require attribution to the original creator(s). The creator can add on other restrictions such as non-commercial uses only and no derivative works. The six licences include:

  • CC0

In general, you may treat the resource as if it were in the public domain.

  • CC BY

​​​​​​​Attribution to the author/creator required.

  • CC BY-SA

​​​​​​​Attribution required, and you agree to licence new derivative versions of the resource that you create under CC BY-SA as well.

  • CC BY-NC

​​​​​​​Attribution required; non-commercial use only; commercial use requires a separate, negotiated licence.

  • CC BY-ND

​​​​​​​Attribution required; no derivative works permitted; creation of derivative works requires a separate, negotiated licence.


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​This licence is the most restrictive of our six main licences. It allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they mention you and link back to you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Open Licence Conditions

As a creator of OER, you can choose the conditions of reuse and modification by selecting one or more of the restrictions listed below:

Attribution (BY)

You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit the way you request.

Non-commercial (NC)

You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work — and derivative works based upon it — but for non-commercial purposes only.

Share Alike (SA)

You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the licence that governs your work

No Derivative Works (ND)

You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.


Text a derivative of definitions provided in A Basic Guide to Open Educational Resources, by  Commonwealth of Learning, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Which Licence? A Use Case

In this animated video, Michelle develops a chapter on metabolism for an open textbook. She uses her teaching notes for the text of the chapter, and finds openly licensed images and exercises to accompany the text. She also determines which Creative Commons licence to assign to her finished chapter before sharing it.


About Copyright

Copyright matters, because as educators, we often use content created by others, and create content for others to use.

How to Determine Permissions

Follow this simplified checklist to determine the use permissions of the resources that you find online:

  • Look carefully at the resource you want to use and any information surrounding the resource to identify licensing information.
  • Also review the "about" and "terms of use" pages of the resource's website for permissions and licensing information.
  • If you cannot find a symbol or statement of the licence or the permissions for use, the copyright owner is probably retaining all of their exclusive rights.

Additional Notes:

  • In Canada, the majority of federal, provincial and territorial government works and records are protected by  Crown copyright, and their copyright expires 50 years after the date of publication. However, the Government of Canada permits reproduction of its works for personal or public non-commercial purposes or for cost-recovery purposes under certain conditions.
  • Some provincial and territorial governments in Canada also allow reproduction of their works under certain restrictions. Check the respective government website for more information.

How to Seek Permission to Use a Work

Use the guidelines below to identify whether you need to seek permission from the copyright holder when repurposing existing materials as OER. You may also contact your college library for help on determining whether your intended use falls within a copyright exception or licence, or whether permission is required.

  • You DO NOT need to ask permission if:
    • The resource is in the public domain. However, note that if resources do reside in the public domain, they may contain within them copyrighted works, so examine the resource and read the terms of use carefully.
    • Your intended use falls within a copyright exception or limitation (such as fair dealing).
    • The way that you want to use the resource is in compliance with the terms of a copyright licence that applies to you (i.e., you already have permission in this case).
  • You DO need to ask permission if:
    • You wish to use a resource that is protected by copyright, and your intended use would be infringing copyright law.
    • You wish to use a resource in a way that is beyond the scope of the permission granted to users in an applicable copyright licence.
  • You should consider asking for permission if:
    • You are uncertain about whether your intended use is permitted by an applicable copyright licence.
    • You are uncertain about whether a work is protected by copyright.
    • You are uncertain about whether your intended use falls within a copyright exception or limitation (such as fair dealing).


Text is a derivative of  Permissions Guide for Educators, by  ISKME licensed under  CC BY, 4.0.

Additional Resources


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