Open Content Licenses

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Licenses that allow for the sharing of content.


"The four main types of activity enabled by open content can be summarized as “the four Rs”:

  • Reuse - Use the work verbatim, just exactly as you found it
  • Rework - Alter or transform the work so that it better meets your needs
  • Remix - Combine the (verbatim or altered) work with other works to better meet your needs
  • Redistribute - Share the verbatim work, the reworked work, or the remixed work with others

Notice how each of the first three Rs encompasses those that came before it. Reusing involves copying, displaying, performing, and making other uses of a work just as you found it. Reworking involves altering or transforming content, which one would only do if afterward they would be able to reuse the derivative work. Remixing involves creating a mashup of several works - some of which will be reworked as part of the remixing process - which one would only do if afterward they would be able to reuse the remix." (

The Four Freedoms

Wikipedia’s Terry Foote summarized the freedoms at our 2005 Open Education Conference as:

  • Freedom to copy
  • Freedom to modify
  • Freedom to redistribute
  • Freedom to redistribute modified versions

The Four Freedoms as listed by Freedom Defined:

  • the freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it
  • the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
  • the freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression
  • the freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works


The two most important Open Content licenses are the GNU General Public License and the Creative Commons licenses.

The IANG License offers a more radical approach.

There are many others:

  1. Common Good Public License
  2. Free Art License
  3. Free Music Public License
  4. Free Sheet Music License.

Discussion 1: Open Content for Education

Why Copyleft approaches are problematic for open content

From the Open Content blog:

"Copyleft is an idea borrowed directly from the world of free or open source software, requiring that derivative works be licensed using the exact same license as the original. This insures that when derivatives are created from a copylefted open content work, those children and grandchildren works remain open content, licensed using exactly the same license as the original.

However, while copyleft strictly requires that all future generations of derivative works be free and open, copyleft significantly hinders the remix activity. For example, conservative estimates say that there are approximately 40 million creative works that are currently licensed using a Creative Commons license. About half of these use the ShareAlike clause (Creative Commons’ copyleft clause). Of those creative works that use SA, about two thirds (~13 million) use By-NC-SA, while the other third (~7 million) uses By-SA. While statistics on GFDL adoption are harder to come by, because Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects use the GFDL we can safely estimate at least 7 million works are licensed using the GFDL (which contains its own copyleft clause). Since half of all CC licensed materials are licensed using a copyleft clause and all GFDL licensed materials are licensed using a copyleft clause, this means that over half of the world’s open content is copylefted. And while the CC and GFDL copyleft clauses guarantee that all derivative works will be “open,” they also guarantee that they can never be used in remixes with the majority of other copylefted works. You can’t remix a GFDL work with a By-NC-SA work when the licenses require that the child be licensed exactly as the parent. Each parent had one and only one license - which license would the derivative use? It’s just not possible to legally remix these materials; copyleft prevents this remixing.

While promoting rework at the expense of remix - in other words, taking the copyleft approach - is fine for software, it is problematic for content and extremely problematic for education." (

Why it is particularly problematic for Open Education

" As educators, we are always remixing materials for use in our classrooms both in the “real” world and online. Your mileage may vary, but over my last 15 years of teaching I would estimate that my remixing activities outnumber my reworking activities 10:1 or more. If other teachers are like me in this regard, then, copyleft is a huge problem for open education. Like the American football coach who tries to use his successful offensive and defensive strategies with a European football (or soccer) team, the open source advocate who brings the successful idea of copyleft into the world of open content will eventually be disappointed. The primary activity of the open source software developer is reworking; the primary activity of the open educator is remixing. Different activities require different supporting strategies to be successful.

If we are serious about wanting the freedom to legally and frictionlessly remix educational materials, we have one of two choices: either ignore the OpenCourseWares, Wikipedia, and other copylefted open content of the world (i.e., work only with open content that isn’t copylefted), or forcibly constrain ourselves to one subset of the “open” content universe. Do you see the irony?" (

Public Domain Dedication is not a viable alternative

"If the appropriate goal for a license is, as it appears, to make open content available without any restrictions, why not simply dedicate the works in question to the public domain? There are a number of problems with a public domain dedication (like that offered by Creative Commons). First, dedicating a work to the public domain is a significantly more involved process than licensing a work. While Creative Commons is rightly famous for how easy their license selection technology and little green buttons make licensing your work with a CC license, the public domain dedication is much more complicated and includes a number of steps, including making a request for Creative Commons to send you an email regarding your intent to place a work in the public domain. This rigamarole is not the fault of Creative Commons; they have simplified as much as possible the process of putting a work in the public domain in the US.

But secondly, and more importantly, it may be impossible under the law in some jurisdictions to place a work in the public domain. For example, in the EU authors have certain rights that cannot be contracted or licensed away, making it impossible for an author to legally relinquish all rights to a work (or put it in the public domain). Creative Commons also recognizes this problem with the statement that their public domain dedication “may not be valid outside of the United States.” Hence, a public domain dedication is not an internationally viable mechanism for open content." (

For all the reasons explained above, the author concludes that an Open Education License is needed.

Discussion 2: Open Content Licences for Open Media

Adnan Hadzi: (in the context of Deptford TV project)

"Open Content Licensing schemes, as outlined in Lawrence Liang’s book Guide to Open Content Licenses (2004), help to create an understanding of a shared culture – culture as a communication medium rather than a commodity. Culture and creativity very often build upon previous works, through re-using, remixing and reinterpreting works; often this is a fundamental part of any creative practice. Therefore the academic and journalistic concept of ‘fair use’ could be an import part of social contracts for creative practices. But fair use and even ‘public domain’ is under threat. New digital copyrights such as the Millennium Copyright Act (1998) where written in order to tackle file-sharing, illegalising this new technology in many countries without considering any of its the benefits.

This is a recurring discussion that tends to take place around any invention of new communication technologies. An example is the invention of VCR recorders: at the time it became clear that those trying to stop the distribution and production of VCRs, especially the big studios, made huge profits from rentals and sales in the new home-video market. The same could prove to be the case in regards to the file-sharing technologies.

The original intention behind copyright laws was to support a vibrant production of culture through the protection of producers and artists. As the current copyright legislation cannot be fully implemented when it comes to practices of online distribution and file-sharing, new copyright laws are proposed by the lobby of media giants which violate the private sphere of the consumer and threaten the existence of a democratic public sphere. The irony behind the attempt to create a more strict copyright through eliminating fair use is that this original intention to support cultural production might come to a stand-still, as the artists will not be able to access and use cultural materials they need in order for them to produce new work. As a result, stricter copyright laws disadvantage artists and small producers while they work for the benefit of the already powerful media conglomerates.

For the most part, copyrights are not held by individuals, but by corporate entities who are part of the content industry. The content industry would argue that strengthening their position allows them to provide greater incentives to individual creators, but many creators vociferously challenge that notion. Strengthening copyright laws does improve the position of the content industry by giving them a relatively untempered monopoly over content, but it does so at the expense of the public good. (Besser, 2001)

The public sphere has traditionally been determined by law. Here I coin the term data sphere as an extension of the public sphere following Fenton & Downey’s (2003) argumentation on ‘counter-public’ spheres, in order to describe a digi-tal and networked public sphere where practices such as peer-to-peer networking cannot possibly adhere to traditional copyright laws and cultural content is made available in complete disregard of current legislation. This happens largely through processes that are wholly machinic: automated, self-emergent, governed by protocol rather than direct human intent. Consequently, these copyright laws are, for the first time, being breached by a critical mass of technology; technologies which are mainly in the hands of consumers. When observable coalitions arise out of this mass, they resemble a ‘data sphere’ more than an intentional, human-centred ‘public sphere’ in the traditional sense, since the coming-together need not be by personal volition but by the ways the actual infrastructures are configured. If the ‘datascapes’ of Latour and others (which Jonas Andersson writes about in chapter 2.4 of this volume) make possible a tracing and documentation of how existing social structures come together and become constituated, ‘data spheres’ are the more particular instantiations that form through an actual mobilisation within these datascapes.

Social contracts and laws will eventually be defined for these data spheres, but until then the big ‘user-generated’ platforms such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook try to get their hands on every uploaded piece of content in accord with the old, non-efficacious, copyright legislation. Reading the terms and conditions of those mega-platforms makes one wonder how it can be that so many artists and independent producers hand over the rights for their content to these platforms. This is an excerpt from Facebook’s own terms and conditions:

By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non- exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose, commercial, advertising, or otherwise, on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing. (Facebook Terms & Conditions, 2008)

These platforms present themselves as open-content providers that host a democratic discourse by offering members of the public freedom of speech. In reality they hold the contributors as slaves to advertisement which is, at the moment, the only real means of income generation and profit-making for these ventures. Investments in this field can be on a grand scale: Google bought YouTube in 2007 for $1.65 billion. These companies need to see a quick return on their investment so they become a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” marketing themselves as providers of free and open content while in fact implementing strict proprietary rules.

Consciousness of desire and the desire for consciousness together and indissolubly constitute that project which in its negative form has as its goal the abolition of classes and the direct possession by the workers of every aspect of their activity. The opposite of this project is the society of the spectacle, where the commodity contemplates itself in a world of its own making. (Debord, 1994)

I suggest that the only use of these platforms should be tactical – as when publishing content on YouTube one can benefit from higher visibility, but this comes with abandoning one’s rights. The use of file-sharing technologies on the other hand is strategic – as the participants do not need to abandon their rights and can bypass the draconian terms and conditions imposed by platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. Michel de Certeau defines ‘strategy’ in The Practice of Everyday Life:

I call a “strategy” the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an “environment.” A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, “clienteles,” “targets,” or “objects” of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model. (de Certeau 1984)

Often strategic models depend on the building of infrastructures and the production of laws, goods, literature, inventions, etc. Through this production process a strategy aspires to sustain itself. I argue that Internet is such an infrastructure and is, by its very ontology, a file-sharing technology. As such, use of the Internet through file-sharing is almost impossible to restrict by enforcing non-realistic copyright laws. This use is a strategical utilisation of an infrastructure that is already anti-hierarchical. This strategic utilisation generates data spheres, which have to be moderated through social contracts since the anti-hierarchy and openness of the datascapes does not lend itself to restriction in the traditional sense.

Adding Open Content licensing schemes to the file-sharing distribution technology enables audiences to become active not only in the process of viewing and criticising content but also, and more importantly, in its production process. Open, free content licenses are often referred to as ‘copyleft’.

In the online hacker lexicon, copyleft is thus defined as:

copyleft /kop’ee-left/ /n./ [play on ‘copyright’] 1. The copyright notice (‘General Public License’) carried by GNU EMACS and other Free Software Foundation software, granting reuse and reproduction rights to all comers (but see also General Public Virus) 2. By extension, any copyright notice intended to achieve similar aims.

In 1983 Richard Stallman, a software programmer, started the GNU Project, creating software to be shared with the goal to develop a completely free operating system. For this, Stallman invented the General Public License (GPL) which allows for the freedom of reuse, modification and reproduction of works.

Copyright asserts ownership and attribution to the author. Copyright protects the attribution to the author in relation to his/her work. It also protects the work from being altered by others without the author’s consent and restricts the reproduction of the work. Copyleft is not, as many think, an anti-copyright. Copyleft is an extension of copyright: it includes copyright through its regulations for attribution and ownership reference to the author. But it also extends copyright by allowing for free re-distribution of the work and, more controversially, the right to change the work if the altered version attributes the original author and is re-distributed under the same terms.

For the “copy-paste generation,” copyleft is already the natural propagation of digital information in a society which provides the possibility of interacting through digital networks. In doing so one naturally uses content generated by others, remixing, altering or redistributing this.

Simple “public domain” publication will not work, because some will try to abuse this for profit by depriving others of freedom; as long as we live in a world with a legal system where legal abstractions such as copyright are necessary, as responsible artists or scientists we will need the formal legal abstractions of copyleft that ensure our freedom and the freedom of others. (Debian, 1997)

One of the main current Linux platforms is the Debian Project. Debian describes itself as ‘an association of individuals who have made common cause to create a free operating system’ (Debian, 1997). Debian, as a group of volunteers, created the Debian GNU Linux operating system. ‘The project and all developers working on the project adhere to the Debian Social Contract’ (Debian, 2004). In this social contract Debian defines the criteria for free software and, as such, which software can be distributed over their network.

The Deptford.TV project is strategically building up its own server system with the goal to distribute over file-sharing networks rather than relying on YouTube or MySpace, thus distributing the files over the Free Art License in the spirit of the GPL and the Creative Commons ‘Share-Alike’ attribution license. Nevertheless, Debian reviewed the Creative Commons licenses and concluded that none of the Creative Commons core licenses actually are free in accordance to the Debian Free Software Guidelines, recommending that works released under these licenses ‘should not be included in Debian’ (Debian, 2005).

Creative Commons (CC) was critically discussed in the first Deptford.TV reader by rota & Pozzi (2006), specifically criticising the ‘Non-Commercial’ clause of the CC license. This Non-Commercial (NC) license forbids for-profit uses of works. Despite that, it is often used by content creators who want their media to be distributed and find useful the exchange of information and critical opinions about their work. In this way, a common pool is created. For commercial use of material distributed under the the NC license, one would have to contact the original author for permission. Nevertheless, the definition of ‘Non-Commercial’ is, strictly speaking, very difficult. Many producers use CC licenses to distribute content cheaply via the Internet in order to raise attention to their works. It is interesting that through this attitude we see more artists relying on revenues coming from higher visibility rather than sales of their work. For musicians, for example, this can be live concerts; for photographers, ad-hoc commissions. According to rota, ‘the Non-Commercial clause would only limit diffusion of their works, as well as limit the availability of freely reusable work in the communal pool from which everyone can draw and contribute back’ (rota & Pozzi 2006).

Unfortunately these uncertainties in the Creative Commons system made it corruptible. This is the reason why YouTube, MySpace etc. are often referred to as “open” user-generated content platforms. They provide tools which merely make it seem as if there’s real sharing going on, whereas in reality these sites are about driving traffic to one single site and controlling this site.

Deptford.TV uses the General Public License (GPL), the Free Art License and the Creative Commons Share-Alike attribution license as a statement of copyleft attitude." (

Discussion 3: Problems with the licenses

The Difference between Copyleft/ShareAlike Approaches vs. the Public Domain


"there is nothing anyone can do to remove a public domain work from the commons. Period. Even though Penguin Classics prints and sells copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it will always be part of the public domain, and will continue to be available from places like Project Gutenberg. There is nothing that Penguin, Disney, or anyone else can do to move Huck Finn or any other verbatim public domain resource out of the commons.

Second, let’s also be clear that derivative works of public domain resources can be fully copyrighted, can be placed in the public domain, or can be licensed GFDL, CC, or any other license. Disney movies (which are fully copyrighted) based on stories (in the public domain) are an example. So, while there is nothing anyone can do to move a work out of the public domain, derivative works based on the public domain can certainly be copyrighted.

By contrast, ShareAlike (or copyleft) keeps derivative works in the commons by mandating which license they must be licensed with. This was the topic of my previous post.

So the discussion of copyleft approaches versus public domain approaches comes down to a simple question: do we choose to privilege people, or do we chose to privilege content? In the copyleft model, we privilege content (we guarantee it stays in the commons) at the cost of author freedom (to choose which license to use). In the public domain model, we privilege authors (we guarantee their freedom to choose which license to use) at the risk that some derivative works may leave the commons (be copyrighted).

So should we privilege people or content? For me, this is a very simple question. Content is simply a means to the end of supporting people’s learning. Content is never the end in itself. The idea that we might privilege content over people is frightening to me. As educators, people should always be the first, most important focus of everything we do." (

Incompatibility Issues

A critique of the ShareAlike clauses in Copyleft-type licenses.


"the millions of articles in Wikipedia and the 1.6 million media files in the Wikimedia Commons cannot be remixed with the thousands of courses and tens of thousands of media files coming from university OCW projects around the world. Why not? Because the “copyleft” scheme of the GFDL says that all derivative works must be licensed with the GFDL, and the “copyleft” scheme of the CC By-NC-SA license says that all derivative works must be licensed with the CC By-NC-SA. Hence, these materials cannot be remixed. It should be quite obvious that the sole culprit preventing this reuse and remixing is the copyleft restriction." (

More Information

See our entry introducing Peer Property.

Also: Free Music Philosophy

Key Books to Read

  1. Liang, Lawrence (2004), Guide to Open Content Licenses. Rotterdam: Piet Zwart Institute. Available at
  2. Liang, Lawrence (2004). Copyright, Cultural Production and Open Content Licensing. Rotterdam: Piet Zwart Institute. Available at

  1. Open Content Licensing. Sydney University Press, 2007