Open content

The educational technology and digital learning wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search


This is the only ad on EduTechWiki, because it's for a good cause - Daniel K. Schneider 08:07, 6 October 2009 (UTC).


“Open content, coined by analogy with "open source" describes any kind of creative work including articles, pictures, audio, and video that is published in a format that explicitly allows the copying of the information” (Wikipedia, retrieved 17:53, 10 July 2006 (MEST)).

According to Huckell (2008), Benkler (2006) argues that Individuals, working in non-market, social production have been the source for much of the innovation in what is taken for granted by most persons using the Internet and exploited by commercial firms. Huckell then argues that “To follow industrial models of ownership and control of copyright by employers at the expense of the employees' economic and moral rights may thwart or, at minimum, attenuate the utility of social production”.

There is a large variety of open contents, i.e. informal information such as blog posts or wiki pages, but also more formal publications including free academic textbooks and open access journals.

See also Open educational resources, Wikipedia, Open source

The copyright principle

  • Almost everything written down is copyrighted. This includes, of course, any content you can access on the Internet. Therefore, free access does not mean free to reproduce in any form.
  • Copyright concerns all every production in the literary, scientific and artistic domain, whatever may be the mode or form of its expression and doesn't allow reproduction or any sort of adaption or transformation for a long time.

Only when terms expire, the work is released to the public domain (e.g. free to used). In most countries this is the case when:

  1. The work was created and first published before January 1, 1923, or at least 95 years before January 1 of the current year, whichever is later;
  2. The last surviving author of a work died at least 50 years ago. However, there are a few exceptions, e.g.:
    • The author is unknown or if it's an audiovisual work, it's 50 years after its first publication.
    • This delay is shortened to 25 years for applied arts and photographic works, if it was not officially released (??).
  3. No Berne Convention signatory has passed a perpetual copyright on the work.

Internationally, copyrights are enforced by the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, usually known as the Berne Convention, and which was first adopted in Berne, Switzerland in 1886. It requires its signatories to protect the copyright on works of authors from other signatory countries (known as members of the Berne Union) in the same way it protects the copyright of its own nationals. The Berne convention states a minimal protection of 50 years after the author's death, but each country is free to extend that. It also allows exceptions, i.e. members shall confine limitations and exceptions to exclusive rights to certain special cases which do not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work and do not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the rights holder.

Authors can, of course, relax copyright.

The fair use principle

  • Any content is at least a little bit open to reproduction. This is an accepted exception to copyright laws and allows authors to quote from other works (within reason)
  • In the United States, the fair use doctrine permits some copying and distribution without permission of the copyright holder or payment to same, e.g. for research, critique.
  • In some countries, teachers are allowed to distributed photocopies to students (but the institutions pay a flat tax on each copy) which then is redistributed to publishing companies.
  • Copies for the private use of something that you already own are allowed in most legal systems.

Use of copyrighted materials in education

Education does have somewhat different rules. For each type of use, there are differences between countries, even in Europe. For example, what can be legal in France is not legal in Germany and the other way round ...

  • Scanning
  • Showing a video
  • Copies of articles that are redistributed in closed circuits (e.g. an LMS)

One reason for these differences is that ministries pay for use of copyrighted materials in certain contexts, e.g. schools or universities.

The academic intellectual property exception

In most countries, academics retain copyright ownership for produced papers and publications, unless they gave it way to the publisher of course. In other words, the university usually does not own individual "literary works" (publications and non published texts). Things are often different for patents, trademarks, etc.

Now, some universities recently became interested in selling online learning contents. E.g. the the Swiss virtual campus project did encourage authors and institutions in that direction. Since these materials have been produced with extra internal funding, it also follows that the institution might hold the copyright and a big share of the profit. This is clearly a breach from older practice and Daniel K. Schneider considers this to be a harmful trend for the non-commercial public university system. We don't know actually if any courses of this program finally were sold ...

The question of copyright is more tricky in commercial or non-profit self-financing on-line education (typically the US case). If the university holds the copyright over a production it can make rapid changes to course material, can still offer the course after a professor leaves), etc.

Generally speaking we agree with Huckel (2008) that “if individuals, acting as moral agents, choose courses of action to socially beneficial ends, and are, in fact, responsible for so much of innovation in information, knowledge and cultural expressions, as has been shown, then that should be encouraged not thwarted. Law and policy should place that potential for moral agency in individuals' hands. Given a choice between an institution seeking rent for owned IP and an individual who may also do so but more likely will contribute creatively to the social good, as has been shown, the choice is clear. This still leaves the individual free to sell, license or give away copyrightable expressions to others for socially beneficial ends by the use of a range of licenses available from, for example, Creative Commons.”

Moral rights

There seems to be a huge difference between US and European intellectual property systems. The moral right concept ("droit d'auteur") includes “the right of identification (right of paternity) and right of the author to the integrity of copyrightable expressions.” (Huckel, 2008). In other words, moral right includes both utility (i.e. copyright) and social (i.e. moral) rights.

  • In the US the moral right belongs to the buyer, not the creator.
  • In Canada, the UK and the Netherlands the author can give away those rights.
  • In most European countries, non-economic moral rights (e.g. paternity) cannot be alienated.

An important issue is whether an institution that holds the copyright over a work is allowed to make any modifications.

Why ?

There are several reasons for using open contents in education

  • Cost for the educational system should be much lower since publishers could take out of the loop. Otherwise, if publishers are paid to produce open contents, the cost could a bit lower.
  • Access to information for disadvantaged individuals and institutions is higher
  • Ease of work (no need to worry if you just want to use some asset for a class or an online document)
  • Open collaboration and quick updating procedures could lead to more up-to-date materials
  • It can be argued that knowledge should be part of the commons.

Taxonomy of open content models

Open content licenses can be defined according to several criteria and that can be combined, of course, e.g.

  • Open content, i.e. access to reading: yes/no
  • Recipients: profit/no profit
  • Redistribution: yes/no
  • Modifications (derivative works) allowed: yes/no
  • Attribution (original author must be cited): yes/no
  • Share-alike (redistribution must preserve the original copyright notice): yes/no

E.g. "Creative Commons" (today's most popular open contents licence) allows an author to define 11 combinations of "attribution", "non-commercial", "no derivative works" and "share alike".

In a more general context, according to Gideon Burton (retrieved 13:21, 16 July 2010 (UTC)), an open scholarly communications system would include all of:

  • Open Access
  • Open Review
  • Open Dialogue
  • Open Process
  • Open Formats
  • Open Data

In other words, open content, i.e. open access, is just one facet of a truly "open process".

There are two contrasting possibilities of financing:

(1) OER material writing is funded by institutions, e.g. ministries of education. I.e. authors would be paid for writing a specific textbook. Writing also could be part of a job description. OER material editing and diffusion are funded by institutions, e.g. ministries of education. I.e. copy editors and publishers would be paid Authors, editors and publishers could receive fixed sums or per item that is downloaded.

(2) OER materials are produced and distributed by a community (as part of their work) using a technical infrastructure maintained by communities. E.g. Wikibooks are a good example.

All sorts of mixed arrangements could be imagined. Typical examples are "grand" OER initiatives initiated by various institutions, e.g. BC Open Textbooks

Popular license schemes and organizations

The creative commons license

Creative Commons defines the spectrum of possibilities between full copyright - all rights reserved - and the public domain - no rights reserved. Our licenses help you keep your copyright while inviting certain uses of your work - a "some rights reserved" copyright (Learn More about Creative Commons, retrieved 17:53, 10 July 2006 (MEST)).

The Creative Commons website enables copyright holders to grant some of their rights to the public while retaining others through a variety of licensing and contract schemes including dedication to the public domain or open content licensing terms. The intention is to avoid the problems current copyright laws create for the sharing of information. See Creative Commons home page or Wikipedia: Creative Commons for more details

According to the creative commons website (17:53, 10 July 2006 (MEST)), there are 11 majors versions of the creative commons license based on four conditions:

  1. Attribution. You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work - and derivative works based upon it - but only if they give credit the way you request.
  2. Noncommercial. You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work - and derivative works based upon it - but for noncommercial purposes only
  3. No Derivative Works. You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.
  4. Share Alike. You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work

Creative Commons also launched initiatives for education, e.g. ccLearn and the Main_Page openEd community site.

GNU Free Documentation License

The GNU Free Documentation License (GNU FDL or simply GFDL) is a copyleft license for free content, designed by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) for the GNU project. It is the counterpart to the GNU GPL that gives readers the same rights to copy, redistribute and modify a work and requires all copies and derivatives to be available under the same license. Copies can also be sold commercially, but if produced in larger quantities (greater than 100) then the original document or source code must be made available to the work's recipient.

(Wikipedia, retrieved 17:53, 10 July 2006 (MEST))

Open Publication License

This licence has been created for the academic Open Content Project and has been reused in several other projects including artistic ones. Its creators now suggest using a variant of "creative commons".

Examples of open contents

Open contents can be published through any sort of medium, e.g. on paper, through traditional HTML pages based web site, with a CMS, or a with a system that allows online collaborative writing. Together with various open content intellectual property schemes, this opens many possibilities.

It is not obvious to find open educational resources. The Creative Commons ccLearn division sponsors a website and a specialized search engine:

  • OpenEd sponsored by
  • DiscoverEd is an experimental research engine for finding OER resources.

Examples below include a small, incomplete mix of systems and copyright schemes.

Academic personal or institutional web sites

A lot of academic content is open. Often, it is not very clear what copyright rules apply.

  • Currently (Aug. 2008), the best way to search for such contents is, although this engine also will search commercial publishers. Some institutions use specialized digital libraries software to help academic put papers online.

Public wikis

Wikis became popular because they allow a smaller or larger group of people to produce together linked contents. Also, contents keep their history and changes can be undone if needed.

  • Content of this Wiki uses the Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike version. This means that you can use its contents for non-commercial activities, that you can make derivative works (but only if you cite us) and that there is a copy-left (you must preserve the copyright notice on derivative works).
  • Wikibooks (associated with Wikipedia) is a free library of educational textbooks and also uses GFDL.

Online publication systems

  • Google, in July 2008 started Knol, a project which aims to include user-written articles on a range of topics (Wikipedia). Each article is written by an identified author and the copyright scheme can be chosen by the author. Default is some CC license.

Repositories with learning objects

Open digital libraries

Several organizations make digital libraries with contents available. E.g.

  • MIT Open courseware An example of how a large university can get involved. But many or most course only provide an extended syllabus plus pointers to readings, some of which are online).

See also the Open educational resources (OER) movement article for more examples in the educational realm.

Open access journals

  • Directory of open access journals Quote: “is a community-curated online directory that indexes and provides access to high quality, open access, peer-reviewed journals. DOAJ is independent. All funding is via donations, 50% of which comes from sponsors and 50% from members and publisher members. All DOAJ services are free of charge including being indexed in DOAJ. All data is freely available.”
  • Sherpa database about rights

For software, read Journal management software

Since the 2010s, there are some fake publications according to Beall (2012).

Open textbooks

There exist several organizations that provide and/or curate open textbooks.

  • Open Textbook Network. “a consortium of 630+ higher education institutions working to advance the use of open educational resources in higher education.” As of 2018, an open textbook Publishing Cooperative is planned, to help institutions support their faculty who want to write openly licensed textbooks.

In addition, many organizations, offer free online courses, e.g. Open University's open learn classes or the Saylor Academy. Some of these are based on a central textbook, others assemble various materials, including videos (e.g. MOOCs)


  • Open content is not necessarily restricted to text, graphics or software, e.g. see the very intriguing and funny Free Beer project.

Going around paywalls

There exist several web sites that distribute articles and electronic books for free. Since that is a copyright violation, we will not publish these links here.

There exist legal strategies:

  • Use google scholar to search and look at all variants of an article
  • Search for the author's web site and look there if there isn't a copy or at least a pre-print version. Some editors allow authors to post articles on their own website. Some institutions require publications to be accessible (e.g. the Swiss National Fund).
  • Use, a Firefox and Chrome extension that creates a database of legal copies
  • Use
  • Use, a sharing web site where authors can store private or public articles. If the article is not online you may request a private copy and if you are lucky, the author will forward it to you.


  • Sherpa/Romeo. Use this site to find a summary of permissions that are normally given as part of each publisher's copyright transfer agreement.

References and Bibliography

  • Beall, J (2012). Predatory publishers are corrupting open access. Nature 489: 179–9, DOI:[1]
  • Benkler, Yochai. (2006) The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press. [2]
  • Huckell, T. (2008). The Academic Exception as Foundation for Innovation in Online Learning. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2008 (pp. 6384-6393). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Abstract/PDF
  • Liang, Lawrence 2004. “Guide to open content licenses,” version 1.2. Rotterdam: Piet Zwart Institute, Willem de Kooning Academy Hogeschool Rotterdam, .pdf. Accessed on June 7th 2019.
  • Lessig Lawrence (2004). Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: Penguin, 2004. Website and .pdf
  • Neylon, C. (2013). Architecting the future of research communication: building the models and analytics for an open access future. PLoS biology, 11(10), e1001691. html. Accessed on June 7th 2019.
  • POMERANTZ, Jeffrey; PEEK, Robin. Fifty shades of open. First Monday, [S.l.], apr. 2016. ISSN 13960466.html. Accessed on June 7th 2019. doi:10.5210/fm.v21i5.6360.
  • Open Education: International Perspectives in Higher Education, Edited by Patrick Blessinger and TJ Bliss | December 2016 xxii + 356 | 21 colour illustration | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm). ISBN Paperback: 9781783742783, ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783742806, DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0103, [3]: ebook and html. Accessed on June 7th 2019.