Introduction to open licences

The concept of openness

Trademarks, all rights reserved, copyrighted—these are common legal terms that accompany intellectual properties. 

On one hand, they guard these products against being exploited, e.g. plagiarism or unauthorized redistribution. In other words, the originator withholds the rights to re-use the products. It is understandable that these legal terms have been so popular in the past. Intellectual property involves hard work, and along with the development of the internet, pirating has become increasingly common.

On the other hand, it is not possible to collaborate transparently with copyright or trademarks. However, changes are coming to the landscape of intellectual property law with the rise of the philosophy of openness. In recent years, we have witnessed the emergence of concepts such as open governments, open creative content, open access, open-source, or open educational resources. This new way of thinking puts less emphasis on maintaining control, rather it encourages transparency and collaboration.

Open licencing

To embrace openness does not mean to abolish copyright laws completely. Open licencing offers the solution to acknowledge authorship while still encouraging collaboration.

These are some examples of common open licencing frameworks: 

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a global nonprofit organization that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools. CC licenses are copyright licenses, and depend on the existence of copyright to work. CC licenses are legal tools that creators and other rights holders can use to offer certain usage rights to the public, while reserving other rights. Those who want to make their work available to the public for limited kinds of uses while preserving their copyright may want to consider using CC licenses. Others who want to reserve all of their rights under copyright law should not use CC licenses. (This text originates from the “FAQ” page of Creative Commons and is licenced under a CC BY 4.0 licence.)

A more detailed description of the CC licences can be found here.

Public domain

The public domain consists of all the creative work to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply. Those rights may have expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, or may be inapplicable. For examples, the works of William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci and Georges Méliès are in the public domain either by virtue of their having been created before copyright existed or by their copyright term having expired. As rights vary by country and jurisdiction, a work may be subject to rights in one country and be in the public domain in another.

Works that are intended for the public domain could be licenced under the CC0 licence, which now replaces the obsolete “Public Domain Dedication and Certification” (PDDC).

GNU General Public License (GPL)

The GNU General Public License (GNU GPL or simply GPL) is a series of widely-used free software licenses that guarantee end-users the freedom to run, study, share, and modify the software. The licenses were originally written by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), for the GNU Project, and grant the recipients of a computer program the rights of the Free Software Definition. The GPL series are all copyleft licenses, which means that any derivative work must be distributed under the same or equivalent license terms.

Commonly known projects which have adopted the GPL licence are the Linux kernel, MySQL, and VLC Media Player.

A note on fair use

Fair use is a doctrine in the law of the United States that permits limited use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission from the copyright holder.

Fair use states that the reproduction of copyrighted material for the purposes of criticism, comment, reporting, education and scholarship does not constitute copyright infringement. Whether or not a use of copyrighted material is fair must be weighed on a case-by-case basis according to the following criteria:

  • Purpose and nature of the use (commercial or not; transformative use or not).
  • The nature of the copyrighted work.
  • The extent and significance of the excerpt used in relation to the whole work.
  • Impact of the use on the value and exploitation of the protected work.

In the context of fair use for educational purposes, the University of Chicago has created an extensive Fair Use Checklist to help determine if the use of a copyrighted work complies with copyright laws.


What are your thoughts on open licences? What could be the advantages and disadvantages of open licencing in comparison to traditional copyright licences?