Training Modules

Finding Free and Open Resources

Module 3: Open Licensing and Public Domain

What are open licenses?

As soon as you put your idea in a tangible format, that material is protected under United States copyright law. Rights to use the material, including selling it, are yours unless otherwise defined by a contract or license. This type of copyright protection is often described as “all rights reserved,” since all rights to use the work are held by the creator of the work unless permissions are granted.

Open licenses are documents that grant certain permissions to the public beyond “all rights reserved” copyright protection. These licenses vary in openness, depending on which uses of a work are permitted or restricted. It is preferred that OER have open licenses that grant the most permissions possible, usually requiring an attribution of the original work and author, but not restricted from commercial use, derivative works, or remixes.

For educational resources, the preferred open licenses are Creative Commons licenses, which will be discussed in detail in the next module.

What is the Public Domain?

Open educational resources also can be in the Public Domain if the term in which a work is protected under copyright expires, if the work was never under copyright protection in the first place, if the work is donated to the public domain, or if the work is written by the United States government. Public domain works are “no rights reserved,” meaning they can be used in any way without having to obtain permissions. Currently, there is only one way to voluntarily put your current works into the public domain in the United States, and that is through the CC0 open license.

Due to changes in copyright law, public domain restrictions can be complicated. To check to see if a work is within the public domain, use this Copyright Term and Public Domain Guide from Cornell University. For more information on University System of Georgia copyright and fair use policy, check their Copyright Generally guide.


1. Professionally-published commercial books are valued highly in many humanities fields, can act as a source of income, and are often included in tenure and promotion decisions. How could a humanities professor publish a book under an open license while maintaining (or augmenting) the impact that publication has?

2. Look through a current commercially-published textbook in your field - the one you assign, if applicable. What could you do differently with that textbook in the classroom if it were in the public domain?

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