Please note: This guide has been produced by individuals who are not lawyers. Nothing in this page should be considered as legal advice.
In addition to this general guide there is also a detailed Guide focused on Open Data Licensing.
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 Knowledge Definition 1.0.)
For example, a piece of writing on a website made available under an open license would be free for anyone to:
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.
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:
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:
More detailed instructions on how to apply specific licenses are available on the licenses page.
This guide has primarily focused on “content” – texts, images etc. The situation for data is somewhat different because the monopoly rights in data are much more variable across different jurisdictions. The basic logic is still the same: choose a suitable open license and apply it to your work. Further information about open licensing for data, can found both in our associated guide for Guide to Open Data Licensing and as part of the Open Data Commons project.
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: