The Creative Commons (CC) suite of licenses have become the standard set of licenses to use for Open Educational Resources (OER) such as open textbooks, open courseware, videos, etc. These licenses take copyrighted materials from "all rights reserved" to "some rights reserved"; they explicitly grant users of the contents some basic rights (the four "R"s):
- Reuse: The right to reuse the material in its original form
- Revise: Make changes to the material
- Remix: Combine the material with other materials
- Redistribute: Share the material with others
There are three basic "flavors" of CC licenses that are commonly used. I'll detail each, and it's upsides and downsides.
Creative Commons Attribution license (CC-BY)
This is the most permissive of the licenses. In addition to the four "R"s above, it gives the user the rights to use the content in any way they'd like, so long as they attribute (give credit to) the original creator. This license is favored and required by many granting organizations and legislative bills.
On the upside, the content is the most remixable and reusable. There are no restrictions to what you can do with the content. However, this also means that a commercial company could take the content, add a bunch of cool stuff to it, and release their new version under a non-open, fully copyrighted license, so long as the attribute the original creators. Some consider this "encouraging innovation," but most faculty seem to consider it exploitation of their work, which is why I've found faculty rarely choose this license on their own. As a content creator, though, I love finding CC-BY work, since it means I can easily remix it into my own work without having to worry about license incompatibility.
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC-BY-SA)
This license adds a restriction to the CC-BY license, stating that any revisions or remixes that are distributed must by under the same CC-BY-SA license as the original. This license is "viral," forcing derivative works to remain open. This license is the one used by Wikipedia. This is similar to the GNU Free Document License, and the GPL (GNU Public License) which many open-source software projects use.
On the upside, the content is remixable and reusable, so long as you're willing to have the derivative work under the same license. This license does permit commercial use, so a company could try selling your content for $200, but since the content has to be released open, anyone could buy 1 copy of that work, then turn around and freely and legally redistribute or resell it. This is enough to dissuade most companies from doing anything profit-mongering with the content, but at the same time discourages commercial innovation around open content. Personally, I'm OK with that tradeoff.
The downside to this license, in some people's eyes, is its viral nature. While many, like myself, feel this promotes openness, other argue it stifles freedom since it restricts people's use of the material. It can certainly cause difficulties when trying to create a new work remixed from content with different licenses.
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike-NonCommercial license (CC-BY-NC-SA)
This license adds a non-commercial use restriction to the license. This means the four "R"s are still allowed, and you can freely redistribute the original or a derivative work, but you can not do so for commercial gain. This license is used by MIT OpenCourseWare, and bunches of other materials.
On the surface, most faculty love this license. They want their work to be free and open, so of course they want to restrict non-commercial use! A lot of the time, this makes sense. The NC license is fine for many things, but there can be issues.
For me, the biggest issue has been around printing. If the content is NC licensed, am I allowed to having a print-on-demand company make copies of that book for my bookstore to sell to students in the bookstore? I general I personally think this is fine, as my motive in printing it is not for commercial gain, and the printing company and bookstore, while making money off the transaction, are just executing their normal business roles.
The CC license itself is not specific about the definition of non-commercial, and suggests that users contact the content creator for clarification. Unfortunately, asking permission is exactly what the CC licenses are suppose to help us avoid. Many content creators are fine having their works printed and sold, but I've talked with other authors who are adamant that non-commercial means that no one should be making money. Because of this, I steer clear of NC books unless the author themselves has listed it on a print-on-demand site, but even then, my ability to revise or remix the book has been stifled, since I don't know if I can get my remixed version printed legally.
Less of a concern to most faculty, an NC license could restrict the use of OER materials in a course offered by a for-profit company or college.
So, what should I use?
My general recommendation is this:
- If you don't care if someone uses your materials commercially, use the CC-BY license, as it grants the most freedoms, and is the least restrictive.
- If you want to prevent commercialization, use the CC-BY-SA license to discourage commercial use, while avoiding the issues of the NC license. And, as a bonus prize, your license forces any derivative work to be open.
- If you're hyper-worried about commercial use, use the CC-BY-NC-SA license. But please consider adding a clarifying statement saying whether you are OK with people doing things like printing your books, and charging enough to recover the costs of printing. By explicitly stating these things, it saves people like me the headache of guessing or having to contact you.