Reading: Copyright soup - CC, OER, & Bears, oh my!

Back to Session 3

Now that you are posting things to your own online space we should take a moment to look at copyright and some of the related concepts like OER and Open Access that are important in education.

What is Copyright?

Copyright lays out the legal rules about sharing creative works and who has permission to share them. The default is: no sharing allowed. If the author of a work wants anyone else to be able to share that work, they need to give permission. The formal way of writing those permissions is a copyright license. There are many standard copyright licenses designed for different kinds of sharing so you won't ever need to write your own license, just choose from one of the existing options.

Choosing a license the easy way

The most common licenses used for sharing creative works are all written by Creative Commons, a non-profit that publishes a range of license options to let you choose under just what terms you wish to share your work. They offer an interactive license chooser to help you find the right license.

Take a moment to check out the various options and to read their page on what Free Culture is and which licenses to use if you want your work to be part of it. Rather than repeat what they have already written I will address some confusing copyright-related issues that routinely come up in Education.


You may be tempted when looking at the license chooser to select the "no commercial use" option but I strongly caution against it. One of the biggest benefits of using clearly licensed works is that they bring predictability and confidence to the work we do. All of them, that is, except for the "Noncommercial" licenses, which are the only Creative Commons licenses where you cannot tell in advance who will be allowed to do what with the materials. For instance, are non-commercial materials OK to use on a personal teaching blog that has a banner ad? What about by a teacher in a charter school or in an online course platform that is free for students but makes money by datamining them as the learn? The definition of "non-commercial" is simply too fuzzy and will only bring confusion, which is exactly what you are hoping to avoid by picking a license for your work.

If you are worried that someone will take you work and include it in a textbook or otherwise make money off of it , consider using the "Share-Alike" license instead of the "non-commercial" one. The "Share-Alike" license requires people to release any work they build on yours under the same "Share-Alike" terms. So if someone includes your lessons in a textbook, they have to license the whole textbook under the same terms, giving everyone else the same access to their work as they had to yours. You can see this in action with Wikipedia, which is all licensed using the Creative Commons Share-Alike license. Every few years some group tries to make a commercial copy of Wikipedia, generally paying domain experts to expand or review some of the content, but the license requires them to make all these new contributions freely available on the same Share-Alike terms so Wikipedia is free to incorporate any of the good changes they want until the commercial venture's money runs out and it shuts down.

Open Educational Resource (OER)

Open Educational Resources are basically educational materials available under any of the Creative Commons or other similar license terms. Much like with non-commercial licenses, this means you can never be quite sure what you are getting when something is listed as "OER". You may be getting a Free Culture work that you can build the next Wikipedia from, or you may be getting something are only allowed to photocopy exactly as it was originally presented. Unfortunately, you are going to have to do some checking to see what is allowed by each piece of OER you use. Fortunately, just by choosing a Creative Commons license, your materials will qualify as OER and be acceptable for inclusion in different repositories and directories for OER in your field.

Open Access

The only requirement for something to be Open Access is that it be available to the general public without paying a fee. Most often used in the context of academic journals, Open Access is more of a business practice pledge than it is about copyright. I mention it here because the terms are often confused and because insisting on being able to use sharing-friendly copyright licenses is a powerful way for authors to pressure their journals to go Open Access.


The one feature shared by all the options on the Creative Commons license chooser, and by almost all sharing-friendly licenses, is an Attribution requirement. Much like citations in academic publications, this generally just means that you need to list where the material you use came from and who made it. Creative Commons explains this term as:

""" 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. """

Routinely including these kinds of citations in your own work is not only the best way to make sure you always comply with the licenses for materials you use, it is also a great opportunity to model academic professionalism for your students.

Plagiarism vs Copyright

In a community of sharing it can be easy to confuse plagiarism and copyright infringement since both of them often involve failing to credit a source. There is however an important difference. Copyright is about getting permission from an author to use their work and is a matter of law. Plagiarism is about presenting another author's work to an audience as your own and is a matter of ethics. If you copy a Wikipedia article as your term paper copyright law will be satisfied if you put the appropriate license information at the bottom but you will still face the repercussions for plagiarism.


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