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Open Educational Resources (OER): Understand Licensing & Attribution

Copyright basics

Your work is automatically protected under copyright law as soon as your pen hits the paper.

Copyright law provides authors of creative and scholarly work the exclusive rights to 1) reproduce, 2) make derivatives, 3) distribute copies, 4) perform, and 5) display a work publicly. Creators do not have to register their work or attach a copyright notice in order for copyright protection to apply to the work; the protection exists automatically from the time the work is created. Even if your work is never published, it is still protected by copyright for 70 years after death (this is U.S. law). After 70 years, the copyright term of the work expires, and it becomes public domain. By contrast, a work "for hire" - meaning you transferred your copyright to a publisher - has an initial copyright term of 120 years.  

How does copyright law impact information dissemination & production?

Creators retain five rights as the copyright holder of their work and this impacts how the work can be used or distributed, and can make it a challenge to integrate intellectual materials into educational settings. This is why students are expected to purchase individual copies of textbooks since it's a violation of law to obtain copies without permission from the copyright holder.

Read more: Copyright FAQs for the Instructor

What about Fair Use?

Fair Use guidelines limit the exclusive rights of the copyright holder in certain scenarios, and can make it possible for you to use a work without permission from the copyright holder. Consult this tool (or this pdf version) to help ascertain if a proposed use meets the fair use criteria. There are also limitations to fair use. For example, the TEACH Act (Section 110(2) of the U.S. Copyright Act), does not permit the display of content on public course sites. Rather, it permits display or performance of a copyrighted work for a class sanctioned activity only. Read more: Fair Use and Copyright for Instructors

Intro to Creative Commons licenses

What are Creative Commons licenses?

Creative Commons licenses make the "open" in open educational resources possible. They provide authors with a comparable legal mechanism to both retain copyright AND easily sanction permission for others to distribute or build upon their work.


When you create open learning materials you should always readily display: 

  1. Attribution (sign your name!) 

  2. The Creative Commons license you've chosen and the link to its accompanying terms 

This information lets admirers and adopters of your work credit you and discern how they might share and repurpose your work in accordance with the license terms. 


Wanna Work Together? from Creative Commons on Vimeo.

Choose a Creative Commons license

Select one of six Creative Commons licenses. 


The image below shows the 5 icons that represent different components in CC licenses. 

Creative Commons license symbols


Adopting Creative Commons licensed work and other materials

Why do we attribute?

Just like you cite and provide references in your scholarship, when you teach with course materials developed by someone else, you should always attribute by displaying the name of the author and the type of CC license that accompanies their work.


By properly attributing the author you ensure:

  • The intellectual property rights of the author are preserved (all CC BY licenses require you to cite the author to be in compliance with the license...emphasis on the BY!)

  • The provenance of the work is documented - this is fundamental to tracing the authority and relevancy of your course materials

  • Clear indication of exactly how the resource can be shared or customized based on the provisions of the CC license (for ex., Does the license allow commercial or non-commercial use?)

  • Any non-OER materials can be distinguished from CC licensed materials (Non-OERs might be library subscribed material or newspaper articles) so as not to confuse or misrepresent information to potential adopters


Example of how to attribute a photo:

"Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco" by tvol is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

See more examples from Creative Commons


Tools to help you attribute

Follow CC license terms 

Click on the image below to enlarge.

What content is OK to post on a course site? 

Materials can be posted on the OpenLab or another content management system if:

  • The copyright holder of the material grants permission (via a Creative Commons license or written consent) or you are the copyright holder of the material

  • The material is made available by linking to a version made publicly accessible from the copyright holder

  • The material is in the public domain

From Columbia's Copyright Advisory Office

What if a work has no license displayed on it? 

When in doubt, link out! 

  • If a material is freely available online (but is not public domain or CC licensed), always provide a link to that material to avoid copyright violation.

  • Using library resources? Generate durable links to them! 


Ursula C. Schwerin Library
New York City College of Technology
of the City University of New York
300 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Circulation: 718.260.5470
Reference: 718.260.5485

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