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Open Educational Resources (OER)

Introduction to basic OER concepts, how to find and incorporate them into your course, creating and modifying OER, and getting UofM training on OER

Creative Commons Licenses


Creative Commons (CC) licenses are at the very core of Open Educational Resources (OER). Key to the benefits of OER is that you can use them in any way set forth by the 5Rs (retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute). Normal copyright protections would require you to actively seek permissions from the copyright owner to do these things. By applying a CC license, creators allow to be used by others according to the 5Rs, and users know that as long as they follow the conditions of the license they have perpetual permission to use the work. OER with Creative Commons licenses require attribution to the original creator, unlike public domain works.

Copyright and Open Licensing

Normal copyright protections do not allow for the sort of sharing and adaption that is intrinsic to OER. OER as a result are either shared with an open license such as Creative Commons or are part of the public domain.

Copyright description. Text equivalent in Text Equivalents tab. Creative Commons description. Text equivalent in Text Equivalents tab.
Public domain description. Text equivalent in Text Equivalents tab.


  • Owner of a copyright has exclusive rights to their own work, such as reproduction, sale and distribution, adaptation, and public display and performance.
  • Ideas are not protected, only the expression(s) of those ideas put into a fixed, tangible format.
  • Copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of a work.

Creative Commons

  • Allows materials to be copied, redistributed, edited, remixed, or built upon in any medium or format.
  • Licenses are simple and buildable, so licensors can choose and understand their work's level of protection with ease.
  • Licensors retain copyright, but can't revoke these freedoms as long the license terms are followed.
  • Most common open licenses for non-software creative works.

Public Domain

  • Materials are considered "public domain," or free to use without permission, when copyright law does not or no longer applies.
  • Many works enter the public domain after their copyright protection term expires.
  • Materials created by the U.S. government are also public domain.
  • Copyright owners may place ("dedicate") their works into the public domain.

Why Use Creative Commons Licenses?


Creative Commons licenses allow content creators, researchers, instructors, and students to share and discover robust open educational materials across nearly every disciplinary field of study or area of interest. From textbooks to homework assignments, images and videos, and everything in-between, Creative Commons opens the floodgates of academic inquiry open to a wider audience of both mature and budding scholars. 

Parts of a Creative Commons License

Creative Commons licenses are coded by the degrees of flexibility they offer to users. All CC licenses are built out of the following four elements: 

  •   BY Attribution: you can only use the work if the creator is credited (follow best practices for attribution).
  •   NC Non-Commercial: you cannot use the work for commercial purposes.
  •   ND No Derivatives: you cannot change or adapt the work.
  •   SA Share Alike: you can make changes or adaptations, but the new version must be shared under the same license or a compatible license.

To fully be compliant with the 5Rs, an OER's license cannot include the ND No Derivatives element because that would prevent revising and remixing. 

This chart shows the permissions and restrictions associated with each Creative Commons license as well as public domain works. 

Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons Licenses. Text equivalent is below.

"Creative Commons Licenses" by GW Libraries is used under a CC BY 4.0 license

Text Equivalent: Creative Commons Licenses

  • Public domain
    • Does not require attribution. 
    • Allows copy & publish, commercial use, modify & adapt, and change license. 
  • BY Attribution
    • Requires attribution.
    • Allows copy & publish, commercial use, modify & adapt, and change license. 
  • BY-SA Attribution Share Alike
    • Requires attribution.
    • Allows copy & publish, commercial use, and modify & adapt.
    • Does not allow change license. 
  • BY-ND Attribution No Derivatives
    • Requires attribution.
    • Allows copy & publish, commercial use, and change license. 
    • Does not allow modify & adapt.
  • BY-NC Attribution Non-Commercial
    • Requires attribution.
    • Allows copy & publish, modify & adapt, and change license. 
    • Does not allow commercial use.
  • BY-NC-SA  Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike
    • Requires attribution.
    • Allows copy & publish and modify & adapt.
    • Does not allow commercial use and change license. 
  • BY-NC-ND Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives
    • Requires attribution.
    • Allows copy & publish and change license. 
    • Does not allow commercial use and modify & adapt.

The Creative Commons non-profit organization has developed an online tool for those wishing to publish their own open educational resources. This tool will help you to decide which CC license is best for your purposes and will provide an HTML code to assign to your digital materials as well as the appropriate image to copy into printed documents. 

Creative Commons is in the process of developing a new tool for determining licenses, so this information is apt to change in the near future. [Information added 5.17.2021.]

For a thorough explanation about the current process of choosing a Creative Commons license, please see the video below.

This guide was created by Dr. Meredith Heath Boulden on behalf of the University of Memphis Libraries and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License    unless otherwise noted. This guide is currently maintained by Carl Hess