Open Content: Licensing, Attribution, and Reuse

6 min read

Nearly every time we talk about open content, we are asked about licensing, reuse, and the possible risks of reuse. It's a complicated issue, but it is definitely worth noting that using Creative Commons licensed material is significantly less complex than traditional copyright. With authoring events coming up in Portland and San Francisco, we wanted to look at the resources that already existed to explain licensing, and come up with as simple a guide to licensing and reuse as possible.

This post is not intended to be a comprehensive review of either Creative Commons or traditional copyright. The purpose of this post is to provide people writing open content with some sound guidelines for using and remixing content.


Creative Commons Licensing: An Overview

Every one of the six Creative Commons license requires attribution of the original source, and we will look at attribution later in this post. In addition to attribution, a Creative Commons license can reserve the following rights for the author (or place the following obligations on people reusing the content):


  • Non-Commercial - work released under the NC license cannot be used in a commercial endeavor without the permission of the original creator;
  • Share Alike - when a work is released under the SA license, it requires that any future work that incorporates the original must be released under a comparable license;
  • No Derivatives - work released under the ND license cannot be altered or modified when it is reused.

Molly Kleinman has a series of posts on the details of using the Non-Commercial, the Share-Alike, and the No Derivatives licenses.

The public domain is another option; licensing your work in the Public Domain allows anyone, anywhere, to use your work in any way they see fit, without any obligation to attribute you as the original source.

A central reason that Creative Commons licensing gets confusing for people is that thinking about the license requires that we consider two different events: the initial act of creation; and how the initial work can be reused and adapted over time.


Remixing Work and License Compatibility

When we are creating open content, we will likely encounter - and want to use - content that has been licensed under several different licenses. When we are remixing a work and building on other openly licensed work, we need to consider the licenses of our source material as we choose the license of our new work. The chart included below (adapted from the Creative Commons FAQ on licensing work from multiple sources) shows how mixed licenses can be used.



Compatibility chart Licenses that may be used for a derivative work or adaptation
License of original work PD YES YES YES YES YES YES YES
BY-NC-SA       YES      
BY-SA           YES  

As the chart shows, if a piece of source material is licensed under a Non-Commercial license, any work built on that would need to be Non-Commercial as well. When choosing a license, we are limited by the licenses of the work we are looking to incorporate. If a derived work uses information licensed under either of the Share-Alike licenses, the resulting work must also use the Share-Alike license. Accordingly, the license we choose will place similar limits on future uses of our work.

This isn't a bad thing, and to all the people who are saying that this is complicated: yes, but it is much more flexible and humane than the existing copyright system. At the end of this piece, I will demonstrate how to use this chart to navigate remixing different sources.

For additional information on reusing material licensed under different licenses, see Resolving License Conflicts When Authoring Open Content.



Attribution is required under all Creative Commons licenses, and it is also just basic scholarship.

To attribute a work used in your open content, include the following information:


  • The author's name or pseudonym;
  • A link to the original work; if the resource isn't available online, then information (like publication date, publisher, magazine name, etc) to help someone else find and use the resource;
  • The title of the original work;
  • The license of the original work, with a link to the license, where possible;
  • If available, any applicable copyright dates.

Molly Kleinman has a good writeup on attribution, with examples.

This information can be collected at the end of your post, in a list of works cited and a list of works consulted.

Of these two lists, the list of works cited is the one that matters for choosing a license. When writing online, arguably, the list of works consulted can be inferred from the list of external links on a page.

At the end of this post, I include a list of works cited and a list of works consulted.


List of works remixed


In this post and our companion post on resolving licensing conflicts, we incorporated and reworked material sections from the three works listed above. Two of the works are licensed under the CC-BY license, and one is licensed under the CC-BY-SA license.

Using the matrix included above, we see that the CC-BY posts can be remixed into derivative works using many different licenses.

Our third work is licensed under a CC-BY-SA license; from looking at the matrix, we see that CC-BY works can be remixed into CC-BY-SA. Accordingly, the only choice on this post is CC-BY-SA. Given that this is the license we like to use, this works well.


List of works consulted

The list of works consulted does not affect the license used when publishing a work. When writing for the web, the list of works consulted can generally be inferred from the links in the post. In addition to the works linked in this post, we also read through the information in the posts listed below.

In addition to the posts listed below, Karen Fasimpaur provided some incredibly useful guidance with finding some of the resources used in this post.



Closing Notes

Questions about licensing have been one of the thornier elements to creating and reusing open content. However, with the large and growing body of high quality openly licensed resources that are available, navigating licenses is becoming easier. A goal of Creative Commons licensing is to facilitate sharing and reuse, and this is a fundamental shift in how we traditionally think about licensing.

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