Open Licensing

Open Perspective | March 2018 | Open Licensing

Week 3: How are funders (governments and foundations) using open licenses?

This week explores how public policymakers can leverage open licensing policies, and by extension OER, as a solution to high textbook costs, out-of-date educational resources and disappearing access to expensive, DRM1 protected e-curriculum. Education policy is about solving education problems for the public. If one of the roles of government is to ensure all of its citizens have access to effective, high-quality educational resources, then governments ought to employ current, proven legal, technical and policy tools to ensure the most efficient and impactful use of public education funding.

Open education policies are laws, rules and courses of action that facilitate the creation, use or improvement of OER. Open education licensing policies insert open licensing requirements into existing funding systems (e.g., grants, contracts or other agreements) that create educational resources, thereby making the content OER, and shifting the default on publicly funded educational resources from “closed” to “open.” This is a particularly strong education policy argument: if the public pays for education resources, the public should have the right to access and use those resources at no additional cost and with a full spectrum of legal rights necessary to engage in 5R activities.

David Wiley likes to say “if you buy one, you should get one.” David, like most of us, believes that when you buy something, you should actually get the thing you paid for. Provincial / state and national governments frequently fund the development of education and research resources through grants funded with taxpayer dollars. In other words, when a government gives a grant to a university to produce a water security degree program, you and I have already paid for it. Unfortunately, it is almost always the case that these publicly funded educational resources are commercialized in such a way that access is restricted to those who are willing to pay for them a second time. Why should we be required to pay a second time for the thing we’ve already paid for2?

Governments and other funding entities that wish to maximize the impacts of their education investments are moving toward open education licensing policies. National, provincial / state governments, and education systems all play a critical role in setting policies that drive education investments and have an interest in ensuring that public funding of education makes a meaningful, cost-effective contribution to socioeconomic development. Given this role, these policy-making entities are ideally positioned to require recipients of public funding to produce educational resources under an open license.

Let’s be specific. Governments, foundations, and education systems / institutions can and should implement open education licensing policies by requiring open licenses on the educational resources produced with their funding. Strong open licensing policies make open licensing mandatory and apply a clear definition for open license, ideally using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license that grants full reuse rights provided the original author is attributed.

The good news is open education policies are happening! In June 2012, UNESCO convened a World OER Congress and released a 2012 Paris OER Declaration, which included a call for governments to “encourage the open licensing of educational materials produced with public funds3.” UNESCO convened a second World OER Congress in Slovenia in 2017 and published the 2017 Ljubljana OER Action Plan which called for “develop[ing] policy that requires publicly funded educational resources be openly licensed.” OECD’s 2015 report: “Open Educational Resources: A Catalyst for Innovation4” provides policy options to governments such as: “Regulate that all publicly funded materials should be OER by default. Alternatively, the regulation could state that new educational resources should be based on existing OER, where possible (“reuse first” principle)5.”

As governments and foundations move to require the products of their grants and/or contracts be openly licensed, the implementation stage of these policies critical; open licensing policies should have systems in place to ensure that grantees comply with the policy, properly apply an open license to their work, and share an editable, accessible version of the OER in a public OER repository6.

A good example of an open education licensing policy done well is the US Department of Labor’s 2010 Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAACCCT) which committed $2 billion in federal grant funding over four years to “expand and improve their ability to deliver education and career training programs” (p.1). The intellectual property section of the grant program description requires that all educational materials created with grant funding be licensed under the CC BY license, and the Department required its grantees to deposit editable copies of the OER into – a public open education repository.

A number of other nations, provinces and states have also adopted or announced open education policies relating to the creation, review, remix and/or adoption of OER. The Open Policy Registry lists over 130 national, state, province, and institutional policies relating to OER, including policies like a national open licensing framework and a policy explicitly permitting public school teachers to share materials they create in the course of their employment under a CC license.

Open policy projects like the Open Policy Network, and the Creative Commons Copyright Reform and Open Education Platforms (more on this in next week’s post) and are well positioned to foster the creation, adoption and implementation of open policies and practices that advance the public good by supporting open policy advocates, organizations and policy makers, connecting open policy opportunities with assistance, and sharing open policy information.

Because the bulk of education and research funding comes from taxpayer dollars, it is essential to create, adopt and implement open education licensing policies. The traditional model of academic research publishing borders on scandalous. Every year, hundreds of billions in research and data are funded by the public through government grants, and then acquired at no cost by publishers who don’t compensate a single author or peer reviewer, acquire all copyright rights, and then sell access to the publicly funded research back to the University and Colleges. In the US alone, the combined value of government, non-profit, and university-funded research in 2013 was over $158 billion7 — about a third of all the research and development in the US that year.

As governments move to require open licensing policies, hundreds of billions of dollars of education and research resources will be freely and legally available to the public that paid for them. Every taxpayer- in every country – has a reasonable expectation of access to educational materials and research products whose creation tax dollars supported.


  • Examples of Open Access (on funded research) open licensing policies:

Next stage: Open Procurement

The open education movement needs to talk with national and provincial / state governments about moving beyond open licensing requirements on optional / discretionary public funds (which we, of course, still need to do) into what I’ve termed “open procurement.”  How can we help governments: evaluate existing education materials procurement expenditures and systems, and then create a new education materials procurement system by which the Government issues RFPs and pays for educational content to be created (with the option to issue maintenance contracts), the government owns copyright, vendors are work-for-hire, and materials are shared – by the government – under a CC BY license  so the public owns what it funded. My short hand on this is “Own what you buy. Share what you own.”

Action #1: Read the Cape Town +10: Opening Up Publicly Funded Resources.

Action #2: Think about a discretionary government or foundation funding source in your country that could benefit from an open license requirement. Consider contacting the funder to start a conversation with them.



  1. Digital rights management (DRM) schemes are used to restrict access to and use and/or modification of copyrighted works
  2. Game Changers: Chapter 6: Why Openness in Education?
  3. 2012 Paris OER Declaration:
  4. OECD Open Educational Resources: A Catalyst for Innovation:
  5. page 131
  6. For more detail on what governments should consider when implementing an open education licensing policy, see CC’s “Open Licensing Policy Toolkit”