When ‘Open’ Isn’t Open: Understanding Copyright and Permissions for OER

The Internet has millions of learning resources online, many of them free. But not all of these freely accessible materials are open for the kinds of uses that best serve today’s students—adapting and remixing materials to meet their specific needs.

Even among librarians, the distinction between “freely available” and open educational resources (OER) is often murky, according to a recent survey of 95 librarians in 50 school districts in five states. While one-half of the respondents said that they knew what OER was and were using it, many confused OER—openly licensed learning materials that reside in the public domain or that have been released under a license that permits no-cost use, adaptation, and redistribution—with any free materials available online. These misperceptions can lead to potential academic and licensing issues for districts. Implementing OER requires specialized knowledge about where to look for materials and understanding the ins and outs of intellectual property, fair use, and open licensing.

Below are some common practices to secure permissions, recognize copyright, and understand some of the differences in different types of OER licenses:

  • When involved in copyright and permission, the fundamental rule is, “When in doubt, ask.” It can be as simple as sending an e-mail to the source and keeping records that show you have permission to use materials.
  • Do your utmost to get permission to use the resource. Often the ground rules are explicitly presented within the resource. If you don’t have explicit permission, seek it.
  • It is sometimes not abundantly clear how different materials are licensed and whether or not users are allowed to adapt materials or simply share them “as is” in their original form. Keep careful records of whom you have contacted and the outcome of the communication. Doing so doesn’t have to be complicated. In our district, the information is kept in a three-ring binder.
  • Track permissions information as you curate. Tools like Google Docs and Word make it easy to mark the permissions status on sources by using their notation tools and/or comments. Adding information as materials are curated will save time in the long run.
  • If you get into trouble, cease and desist. Stop using the material and seek proper permission. You are not trying to do harm; you are educating children. Publishers and content providers understand this, and the work may be covered by fair use.
  • While waiting for permission, don’t use or share the materials widely. However, you can test the material out in a small number of classrooms to determine its usefulness. If it is not effective, there is no need to continue chasing permission for use.
  • Get familiar with open licenses and how they vary. The most popular open licensing system is Creative Commons (CC). Open licenses support creators who want to share their works freely, and, in some cases, allow other users more flexibility to adapt and share their original work. Specific benefits include:
    • Allowing others to distribute the work freely, which in turn promotes wider circulation than if an individual or group retained the exclusive right to distribute;
    • Reducing or eliminating the need for others to ask for permission to use or share the work, which can be time consuming, especially if the work has many authors;
    • Encouraging others to continuously improve and add value to the work; and
    • Encouraging others to create new works based on the original work—e.g. translations, adaptations, or works with a different scope or focus.

Be aware that there are various Creative Commons licenses, and you will need to pay special attention to which materials are covered by which types of license. The least restrictive, and most open of the Creative Commons licenses allow users to copy, curate, and distribute with credit for what you add. Other Creative Commons licenses are progressively more restrictive (as shown in the illustration below). Librarians should immediately recognize that materials that have No Derivative Works licenses expressly prohibit adaptation. The provider is allowing the materials to be used and shared as is and not permitting creating/sharing of remixed version.

These and other lessons are embedded in a new resource for librarians developed by the Silicon Valley-based nonprofit organization, the Institution for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), the organization that manages OER Commons, in partnership with Florida State University’s School of Information. The resource is titled “The Role of School Librarians in OER Curation: A Framework to Guide Practice” and was supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences. It is a first-of-its-kind guide that provides the missing roadmap to the OER curation process, and provides resources to help librarians upgrade their skills as curators and as leaders of collaborative networks that identify, rate, adapt, localize, and share OER across learning communities.

Author: Morgen Larsen

Morgen Larsen is head librarian at Central Valley High School in Spokane Valley, Washington.



Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Community/Teacher Collaboration

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1 reply

  1. Thank you for the update on “copyright”. One of our resources is now defunct. The group stopped printing in 2019. The other is a printable resource and works through an easy yet thorough policy that is easy to follow. Bottom line, if you are unsure, call them or email them. I like the ease of which they work with their materials
    and a school’s use through their membership.

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