IT Infrastructure & Management

Open-Content Licensing

By Katie Ash — July 23, 2008 6 min read
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As the movement for “open” education resources continues to grow, encouraging educators to share online curricula and materials for free, it’s become vital for ed-tech leaders and classroom teachers to understand the different types of licenses that make the process legal and safe.

With the advent of the Internet and digital media, the way people exchange information has shifted significantly from when copyright laws in the United States were first written, experts say. And schools are now very much a part of that shift.

“The balance got lost when the world went digital, and the laws couldn’t keep up with technology,” says Julie Lindner, the education outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group that promotes free speech and consumer rights in the digital age.

As a result, other licenses, which provide more flexibility than standard copyright, have cropped up to make it easier for educators to share materials and modify existing materials to meet the specific needs of their students.

Under traditional copyright law, a work is protected for 70 years after the creator’s death, says Fred Benenson, the cultural-program associate at Creative Commons. That nonprofit organization, located in San Francisco, has created a series of licenses that aim to provide an alternative to “all rights reserved.”

Conditions for Licensing Rights

Creative Commons breaks down licensing rights into four conditions, which can be mixed and matched to achieve the license an online producer wants.

1. Attribution. Symbolized by the letters “by,” this license requires those who copy, distribute, display, or perform the work, or those works based on it, to give the producer credit in the way that he or she specifies.

2. Noncommercial. This license, signified by the letters “nc,” allows others to copy, distribute, display, or perform the work, or works based on it, but only for noncommercial purposes.

3. No derivative works. The “nd” license allows others to copy, distribute, display, or perform the work only if it is an exact replica of the original. It prohibits derivative works from being published, such as lesson plans that have been modified or localized. .

4. Share alike. This license, indicated by the letters “sa,” requires any derivative works to be released under the same license as the original work.

SOURCE: Creative Commons

“For most people, that perspective is overkill,” Benenson says.

Creative Commons licenses, much like other open licenses, unbundle certain rights—such as whether attribution is necessary, if the work can be modified or used for commercial purposes, and what type of license derivative forms of the material can be released under—and allow the producers of content to pick and choose which rights they’d like to retain.

“Educators ... want to share information. They’re motivated by the fact that they’re spreading knowledge,” says Benenson. “Creative Commons is very much compatible with that idea.”

‘Pretty Much a Mess’

Jim Klein, the director of information services and technology for the 11,000-student Saugus Union school system near Los Angeles, agrees that open licenses could potentially reshape the way information is shared among educators.

“Licensing costs are one of the largest ongoing expenses in K-12. As budgets tighten and technology demands increase, educators are beginning to understand the benefits and embrace the opportunities found in open technologies,” he says. “And what they are finding is better software, more flexibility, and increased access to technology in the classroom.”

See Also

A handful of open licenses are available, such as the Open Publication License and the OpenContent License, says Klein, but the most flexible and internationally recognized set of licenses is Creative Commons.

“As open content continues to become mainstream, there will undoubtedly be more licenses developed. ... However, it is unlikely that any, in the near term, will match the breadth and depth of Creative Commons,” he says.

But even within Creative Commons, obstacles still must be overcome before a truly open education commons can be achieved, says Ahrash Bissell, the executive director of ccLearn, the division of Creative Commons that focuses specifically on education.

One challenge is the incompatibility of different types of open licenses and even the different kinds of Creative Commons licenses themselves, says Bissell. Materials under different open licenses cannot be combined, or “mashed up,” Bissell says.

Fewer than half the Web sites that gather open educational resources use Creative Commons licenses, says Bissell, although that share does not take into account the number of resources on each Web site.

“At the license level, it’s still pretty much a mess,” he says. “That’s really not accomplishing the objective—to create this global education commons.”

‘Confused About the Law’

See Also

For more about this topic, see related chat Open Content in K-12 Education.

Before teachers can begin using open licenses, major strides need to be taken to educate them about licensing, experts say.

“A lot of the ethos of teaching is that teachers have a moral commitment to their students to find the materials that best suit what they need,” says Lisa A. Petrides, the president of the Institute of Knowledge Management in Education, based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and open licenses can help teachers fulfill that obligation legally.

“It really does help solve the conundrum” of finding good supplemental materials in an underresourced situation, she says of the use of open licenses.

Klein, from the Saugus Union district, believes that more professional development around content licensing is necessary.

“The biggest challenge for educators is their own education—understanding the need for appropriate licensing and the impact of the choices they make when selecting a license,” he says.

Administrators also play an important role in educating teachers about copyright law and other licenses, Klein says. “Discussions and learning opportunities related to licensing and copyright need to be planned and encouraged at all levels,” he says. “Educators in general do not have a good understanding of what can and can’t be done with copyrighted material.”

In addition, administrators may need to consider putting policies in place to address ownership of content, he says, “specifically with regard to who owns content that is created by staff on school time.” Those conversations will likely need to involve many departments, from human resources to legal teams and unions, but are well worth the time and effort, says Klein.

It’s also worth noting that teachers are not the only ones who should be educated about content licensing in the digital age, says Lindner, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

She is putting together a curriculum about copyright law, fair use, and digital media called Digital Civics, which is set to launch this fall. “[The point is] to educate kids and teachers about what the parameters of [copyright law] are,” she says. “These kids are really savvy about using technology, but they were equally as confused about the law [as teachers are].”

‘The School’s Job’

Teachers also need technical support to reap all the benefits of using and contributing to the open-education-resource movement, says Bissell, from ccLearn.

Each time a Creative Commons license is selected, the producer is given a few lines of code to be embedded into the Web site, which allows the license to be recognized electronically. But not all teachers know how to put those lines of code required to tag the material into their Web sites, Bissell says. Such tagging is an essential step in aggregating the content.

“We can’t count on that level of technical-savvy,” says Bissell.

Paul Nelson, the instructional-technology specialist at the Northwest Regional Education Service District in Oregon, which serves 20 school districts in the northwestern corner of the state, recognizes that the support teachers need to fully take advantage of open resources may not be at the top of schools’ priority lists.

“Schools are slow on the uptake when it comes to using the information commons. They don’t see themselves as having a duty [to contribute],” he says. “Their time is consumed by more immediate problems.”

But that may change, says Nelson. “In the world today, information is everywhere,” he says, “and the school’s job, I think, now is to help students navigate through that commons.”


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