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Interpreting Creative Commons Licenses in Open Educational Resources

By Julie Hartwell, Instructional Technologist, University of Missouri - Kansas City 

Increase in OERs

MERLOT II, OpenStax, Blackboard xpLor, OER Commons. Sites focused on creating and sharing Open Educational Resources (OER) continue to increase. College and universities are making strides in reducing textbook costs for students as they search for free alternatives.  Some campuses are even providing funds to instructors who want to write their own textbook.

Creative Commons and OERS

With OER, the question remains, if I want to change something, how do I interpret the copyright restrictions? OERs apply Creative Commons licenses to content. Creative Commons license is an alternative copyright license that allows more freedom in sharing work.  Founded in 2001, Creative Commons allows others to share, use, and change resources.  

License Elements

Creative Commons offers six licenses to apply to your textbooks, songs, videos, images, and any other content. Each license offers a combination of four elements.

Figure 1:  Creative Commons License Elements, image from Creative Commons and licensed under CC-BY

1. BY - Attribution 

This is a required element on each license. CC BY requires that you give credit to the original creation and creator.

2. ND – NoDerivs

This element allows for redistribution as long as it reused unchanged with credit to the original. 

3. NC – NonCommercial 

This element allows for you to use work for non-commercial purposes. 

4. SA – ShareAlike

This element lets others use and change your work. ShareAlike requires you continue to give credit to the original creation and apply the same license to any modified work. 

With these elements, you will see each one applied to work. Most licenses include a combination of these elements.

Figure 2:  Least to Most Restrictive Creative Commons Licenses, image from Creative Commons is licensed under CC-BY.  

As you explore OER repositories, pay close attention to the Creative Commons license applied to the content.  If you do not see a license information on a resource, consider searching the website to discover the default license. MERLOT II  and OER Commons allow users to filter content by usage type. 

Citing Creative Commons

With the required Attribution element applied to Creative Commons license, proper citation is necessary. Best practices for attribution include:
  • title
  • author
  • source
  • CC license
If a derivative or ShareAlike, include your name and link to your license. 

Sharing Open Educational Resources

After creating or modifying open educational content, you will need to select a license that works for you. Blackboard’s Open Content allows you to create and share learning objects with your colleagues and throughout the world. As you share your content, you can apply the license of your choice. Blackboard xpLor feature indexes content and lets others link the content in a course. 


With an increase use of Open Educational Resources in higher education, it is crucial to understand and apply Creative Commons licenses to develop a sharing culture. Creative Commons eliminates restrictive copyright laws on educational materials. OERs and Creative Commons can end barriers for education while reducing costs to students. 


Best practices for attribution - Creative Commons. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2016, from

Hartwell, J. (2016). Assessing Your Image Use. Retrieved from

Learning Object Repository (LOR) | Blackboard. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2016, from

About the Author 

Julie Hartwell works as an instructional technologist at UMKC.  She may be reached at  

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