Open Licenses

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From the Appropedia:

"An open license or free license (licence in Commonwealth English) is the legal statement[verification needed] that allows free content and free software to be free. The exact meaning may vary, but a common idea of an open license is one that requires attribution but otherwise lets people use the content in any way, including commercially, but requires them to share their modifications under the same license.

"Free" or "open" knowledge makes humanity wealthier. You and your organization will benefit from the development of free knowledge on Appropedia, Wikipedia and elsewhere.

Open content is free of cost - empowering those lacking in resources. It is also free to reuse, empowering innovators, researchers, educators, entrepreneurs - whoever can think of a use for this knowledge. It enables these people to easily share their own improved versions of the work." (



"In more detail, the main point of an open license is to tell people that they are free to use the content, under relatively few conditions:

  • The most common condition is Attribution - requiring that they acknowledge your work. (This may be just attribution to the wiki, so the individual contributor may not be credited.
  • The next most common condition is Share Alike - that you will share, as long as the final product is also shared in the same way. This prevents someone from taking your work, adding something of their own, and then publishing it in a more restricted way, e.g. claiming copyright on their amendments.

Another popular clause is the Non-Commercial clause (NC in Creative Commons licenses).

However, content with this license is not considered "free" by Freedom Defined (the Free Cultural Works Definition), or the Open Definition and is not able to be used in a site such as Appropedia which uses a license allowing commercial use. " (


" I see free and open licence development as happening within three tranches, all related to a specific area of use.

1. FOSS for software.

Alongside the GPL, there have been a number of licences developed since the birth of the movement (and continuing to today), all aimed at software. These licences work best for software and tend to fall over when applied to other areas.

2. Open licences and Public licences for content.

These are aimed at content, such as video, images, music, and so on. Creative Commons is certainly the most popular, but definitely not the first. The birth of CC does however represent a watershed moment in thinking about open licensing for content.

I distinguish open licences from public licences here, mostly because Creative Commons is so popular. Open has so many meanings to people (as do “free”) that it is critical to define from a legal perspective what is meant when one says “open”. The Open Knowledge Definition does this, and states that “open” means users have the right to use, reuse, and redistribute the content with very few restrictions — only attribution and share-alike are allowed restrictions, and commercial use must specifically be allowed.

The Open Definition means that only two out of the main six CC licences are open content licences — CC-BY and CC-BY-SA. The other four involve the No Derivatives (ND) restriction (thus prohibiting reuse) or have Non Commercial (NC) restrictions. The other four are what I refer to as “public licences”; in other words they are licences provided for use by the general public.

Of course CC’s public domain tools, such as CC0, all meet the Open Definition as well because they have no restrictions on use, reuse, and redistribution.

I wrote about this in a bit more detail recently on my blog.

3. Open Data Licences.

Databases are different from content and software — they are a little like both in what users want to do with them and how licensors want to protect them, but are different from software and content in both the legal rights that apply and how database creators want to use open data licences.

As a result, there’s a need for specific open data licences, which is why we founded Open Data Commons. Today we have three tools available. It’s a new area of open licensing and we’re all still trying to work out all the questions and implications." (


= A guide to open licensing


See also: Open Source Licensing

Discussion: Stephen Downes: Defining Open Content Licenses

What is an open license?

A license is a document that specifies what can and cannot be done with a work (whether sound, text, image or multimedia). It grants permissions and states restrictions. Broadly speaking, an open license is one which grants permission to access, re-use and redistribute a work with few or no restrictions. (A full set of conditions which must be met in order for a license to be open is available in the Open Definition

For example, a piece of writing on a website made available under an open license would be free for anyone to:

- print out and share,

- publish on another website or in print,

- make alterations or additions,

- incorporate, in part or in whole, into another piece of writing,

- use as the basis for a work in another medium - such as an audio recording or a film, and do many other things ... Openly licensed works are hence free to be shared, improved and built upon!

The exact permissions granted depend on the full text of the open license that is applied. Different projects may require slightly different sets of permissions, or restrictions - and there are a range of different licenses available to cater to these different purposes. Some open licenses stipulate that the work may be freely re-used or re-distributed as long as the original author is appropriately credited. Some licenses state that any derivative works - or works that incorporate all or parts of the original work - are made available under the same license as the original work.

For a list of the most common open licenses, see the Open Knowledge Licenses page.

Why use an open license?

Works that are published without an explicit license are usually subject to the copyright laws of the jurisdiction they are published in by default. These laws typically give several exclusive rights to the copyright holder - including the right to produce copies, and to produce derivative works. These rights prohibit unauthorised re-distribution and re-use by third parties - and can remain in effect until the date of death of the author plus 70 years. While the protections offered by copyright laws are appropriate in many circumstances, there are also circumstances in which these protections may be unnecessarily restrictive.

Open licenses enable creators to allow more freedom in what others can do with their works. Benefits of this freedom include:

. allowing others to circulate the work freely - potentially giving it a greater circulation than if a single group or individual retained an exclusive right to distribute;

. not forcing users to apply for permission every time they wish to circulate a copy of the work in question - which can be a time consuming affair, especially if the work has many authors;

. encouraging others to continuously improve and add value to a work;

. encouraging others to create new works based on or derived from the original work - e.g. translations, adaptations, or works with a different scope or focus.

How can I apply an open license?

Applying an open license to a work can be very straightforward. The procedure may slightly vary depending on which license is selected, but should be more or less as follows:

. Get permission from all copyright holders to openly license the work.

. Decide which open license best suits your purposes.

. Display a notice somewhere prominent on your work stating that your work is made available under the open license you have chosen. Include a copy of, or a link to, the full text of your chosen license in your work.

More detailed instructions on how to apply specific licenses are available on the licenses page.

Status Report 2007

Peter Suber:

"In 2007, more and more open access discussions zeroed in on the details of open licenses. Much of the discussion took place in blogs, and marked a shift in focus and concern more than a series of concrete developments. But there were also some notable developments, apart from the licensing changes at Wikipedia and Citizendium (noted above). The Microformats Wiki started using the CC Public Domain Dedication. Nature began to use CC licenses for Nature Precedings and even for Nature articles reporting genome data. OpenMathText began to permit commercial reuse. Libertas Academica, already an OA publisher, agreed to use Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) licenses for its journals after Peter Murray-Rust urged it to do so in a blogged review. Elsevier adopted a liberal license, permitting a range of re-use rights as well as free online access for the articles it deposits in PubMed Central or UKPMC on behalf of funding agencies who pay it to do so. Generalizing the trend, a group of publishers and research funders agreed that when funders pay publishers to provide open access to an article, then the publishers should remove key permission barriers as well as price barriers. Shahram Ahari, researcher at the University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy, argued that the TRIPS agreement might support compulsory licenses for distributing toll-access journal articles, without charge, in developing countries. The Open Knowledge Foundation released its Guide to Open Data Licensing and released a draft open data license for public comment. Science Commons proposed a protocol for the licensing of open data, and in less than one month is already attracting adoptors.

An Eduserv survey showed that most UK museums, archives, and libraries do not use open licenses for their digital content. The Queensland government in Australia undertook a major study of open licenses for government information. The National Library of Chile released all its digital content under CC licenses. The Japanese government is considering a new exception to Japanese copyright law that would allow uncompensated copying and distribution of medical journal articles in cases of medical emergency. A German copyright reform that took effect on January 1, 2008, allows scholars who published in Germany before 1995 to regain or retain the rights to their works (and therefore, use those rights to authorize open access) if they notify their publishers before the end of 2008.

Creative Commons dropped its DevNations license because it conflicted with the principles of open access by authorizing it only in certain countries. It also added two new licensing projects: CC0 (CC-Zero), a more effective assignment to the public domain, and CC+, which makes it easier for authors to bar commercial use and make individual exceptions. In addition, CC released the 3.0 versions of its licenses, created an add-in for OpenOffice, and launched ccLearn, which will try to spread the use of open licenses for teaching and learning.

SPARC Europe and the DOAJ announced a program to develop standards, including licensing standards, for OA journals, and to help publishers meet those standards. It's understandable why few postprints on deposit in OA repositories carry CC licenses or the equivalent. Journals that give permission for self-archiving rarely give permission to exceed fair use and permit user copying and distribution. But there's no comparable reason why so few OA journals carry CC licenses or the equivalent, and it's dismaying that so many still limit users to fair use. The SPARC-DOAJ program is the most promising bottom-up idea I've seen for remedying this situation." (;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0011.110)

More Information

For further information about open licensing for data, see our Guide to Open Data Licensing.

For further information about specific open licenses, please see their respective websites. These are listed on the Open Knowledge licenses page.


The following is a list of articles and posts about open licenses and open licensing:

A Guide to Open Content Licenses, Lawrence Liang, December 2004. This is an excellent listing, summary and analysis of current open content licenses.

Learning the lesson: open content licensing, Glyn Moody, August 2006. A good history of open content licenses.

Definition of Free Cultural Works licenses page. A grid comparing permissions and restrictions of different open licenses.

The Wikimedia Commons - Choosing a license page gives a good breakdown of common license conditions.


Listen to Jason Haislmaier's Introduction to Free and Open Source Licensing