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:
- 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.
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.
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 rightholders 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.
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:
- 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.