Answered By: Victoria Peters
Last Updated: Nov 29, 2022     Views: 3

All OER are made available under some type of open license, a set of authorized permissions from the rightsholder of a work for any and all users. The most popular of these licenses are Creative Commons (CC) licenses, customizable copyright licenses that allow others to reuse, adapt, and re-publish content with few or no restrictions. CC licenses allow creators to explain in plain language how their works can be used by others.[1]

Creative Commons licenses will be explored in more detail in the next chapter. However, there are other open licenses that can be applied to educational materials. A few of these licenses are described below:

  • GNU Free Documentation License: a copyleft license that grants the right to copy, redistribute, and modify a resource. It requires all copies and derivatives to be available under the same license. Copies may be sold commercially, but the original document or source code must be made available to the user as well.[2]
  • Free Art License: The FAL “grants the right to freely copy, distribute, and transform creative works without infringing the author’s rights.” It is meant to be applied to artistic works, not documents.[3]

If you’re interested in learning more about open licenses, feel free to explore the Free Software Foundation’s information on copyleft licenses, some of the first licenses used for open content.[4]

Why open licenses?

Open licenses are an integral part of what makes an educational resource an OER. The adaptability and reusability of OER make it so that they are not just free to access, but also free for instructors who want to alter the materials for use in their course. For example, in the figure below an openly licensed image has been traced to make it more readable for users.


Two images of a flowering plant with pieces labeled: the first is fuzzy and out of focused, with the words "CC 0 Universal Public Domain License, Kelvinsong" beneath it. The second is a copy of the first with cleaner lines and clearer labels and the words "CC 0 Universal Public Domain License, Kelvinsong (adapted for readability) beneath.
“Adaptation in action” by Abbey Elder, licensed CC 0 1.0, was adapted from “Copyrighted source to tracing” by Kelvinsong, also licensed CC 0 1.0. This image was originally used to represent an improper recreation of a copyrighted work via tracing. In this example, it shows how an already open work can be legally recreated via tracing for readability.


One of the tenets of OER laid out early on in the open education movement was the idea of the 5 Rs (originally the 4 Rs) introduced by David Wiley.[5] These five attributes lay out what it means for something to be truly “open,” as the term is used in open education. The 5 Rs include:

  • Retain = the right to make, own, and control copies of the content.
  • Reuse = the right to use the content in a wide range of ways
  • Revise = the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself
  • Remix = the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new
  • Redistribute = the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others

While the “redistribute” and “revise” rights are the most commonly exercised rights in open education, each of the five plays an important role in the utility of an open educational resource. For example, without the right to “remix” materials, an instructor who teaches an interdisciplinary course would not be able to combine two disparate OER into a new resource that more closely fits their needs.


  1. By assigning an open license to your work, you allow any user to exercise the rights allowed under the license, and cannot restrict reuse by certain individuals or parties without changing the license itself. 
  2. Free Sotware Foundation. "GNU Free Documentation License." 2008.
  3. Copyleft Attitude. "Free Art License 1.3." 2007.
  4. Free Software Foundation. "What is Copyleft?." Accessed June 29, 2019. 
  5. Wiley, David. "Defining the 'Open' in Open Content and Open Educational Resources." Open Content blog, 2014.