Creating an OER? How to Use Stuff that You Don’t Own

In May, Jill Cirasella, addressed the makers out there with her post, “Creating an OER? How Should You License It?” But before you license your OER, you have to build it. To do so, you will likely need to use another creator’s materials. Can you use extant materials, or does copyright always get in your way?

Consider this: if you plan to share your course widely as an OER, you can no longer count on a jointly-held library affiliation. Therefore, it is important to carefully vet the material you chose to include in your course for any potential copyright violations. It is also best to make sure that the materials you use are available publicly.

We have some tips that should protect you, while keeping your creative vision intact.

Creative Commons

We’ve posted several times about Creative Commons (CC) licenses for content creators (Jill’s post) and (Creative Commons 4.0 for Education).  These licenses help the content user/re-mixer as well. To use them, first consider how you plan to use the materials? Will you display an image, for example, or create derivatives of it? With use in mind, you can search for objects with the appropriate CC license. On Google Images, for example, you can search by license type (select appropriate Usage Rights from the Advanced Search page).  Even better, Creative Commons offers a consolidated search at; participating sites offer audio, video and image files.  When using others’ materials, attribution is always the name of the game, so be sure to give credit where credit is due.

Open Access

If you need readings for your OER, consider open access (OA) publications. You can find them at the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) or OpenDOAR, a directory of open access repositories. Because these materials are OA, they can be used by faculty or students regardless of library affiliation. What’s more, you needn’t post the objects themselves in your OER; it is often sufficient to link to them.

Fair Use

You can also make use of the doctrine of Fair Use. Fair Use is an exception to copyright law that protects the rights of content consumers within certain parameters. As the consumer/re-user, it is up to you to carefully analyze your use of the material, in order to determine if it is Fair Use. While there is no magic formula for this analysis, we recommend this step-by-step worksheet from the University of Minnesota. Here too, attribution is a must.

Are you are planning to create your own OER? Consider this opportunity.

For more copyright resources, see the (C)opyright at CUNY page.


Creating an OER? How Should You License It?

When educators write a traditional textbook, they generally have to sign their copyright over to the publisher. When they write an open access textbook or produce some other kind of open educational resource, there’s no need to sign away their copyright — the creators retain the right to copy, distribute, and re-use their works. (Unimpressed by those seemingly basic rights? Remember that when authors transfer their copyright to publishers, they often lose all rights to their work — after the transfer, they sometimes has no more rights to their work than you or I do.)

Of course, if all rights to a work were held only by the creator, others could not copy, share, or reuse the work. In other words, by definition, it couldn’t be an open educational resource. So, we want creators to retain their rights, but we also need them to grant some rights to others. And not just specific other people or companies — to everyone, to all potential users.

And that’s why the open access community loves Creative Commons (CC) licenses: They leave copyright with the creator but also grant some rights to others. Creative Commons licenses are not the only way to grant rights to a work, but they make it easy for creators to communicate which rights they do and don’t give to others, and they’ve emerged as the standard licensing tool for open access materials.

Creative Commons LicensesThere are six Creative Commons licenses on the spectrum between traditional copyright and the public domain. They differ in their requirements regarding commercial uses and derivative works, and there are fascinating things to say about all of them. But I’m going to limit this post to two of the most commonly used licenses for OERs: CC BY (Attribution) and CC BY-SA (Attribution-ShareAlike):

  • The CC BY license says that people can do whatever they want with the work — copy it, print it, distribute it, expand it, remix it, even sell it — provided that the creator is properly attributed.
  • The CC BY-SA license is very similar but differs in one key way: It says that people can do whatever they want with the work provided that (1) the creator is properly attributed and (2) any resulting works are released with the same license. Because CC BY-SA requires that derivative works are also CC BY-SA, it is a “viral” license.

Which is better, CC BY or CC BY-SA? Major players in the open access arena have strong and different opinions.

Wikipedia uses CC BY-SA, explaining that [bold is mine]:

To grow the commons of free knowledge and free culture, all users contributing to the Projects are required to grant broad permissions to the general public to re-distribute and re-use their contributions freely, so long as that use is properly attributed and the same freedom to re-use and re-distribute is granted to any derivative works. In keeping with our goal of providing free information to the widest possible audience, we require that when necessary all submitted content be licensed so that it is freely reusable by anyone who cares to access it.

The Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), on the other hand, endorses CC BY, going so far as to disallow CC BY-SA among its members [bold mine]:

To fully realise that potential of open access to research literature, barriers to reuse need to be removed. . . .

The most liberal Creative Commons license is CC-BY, which allows for unrestricted reuse of content, subject only to the requirement that the source work is appropriately attributed. Other Creative Commons licenses allow for three possible restrictions to be imposed. . . . But the emerging consensus on the adoption of CC-BY reflects the fact that any of these restrictions needlessly limits the possible reuse of published research.

. . . while [Share-Alike] licenses can be extremely helpful in building up a collection of content, they also have downsides in terms of the limitations they place on reuse. For example, material distributed within a Share-Alike article could only be combined and redistributed with other share-alike content. In contrast, CC-BY content can be combined with any content, and redistributed according to the terms of that other content, as long as CC-BY’s own attribution requirement is respected. This makes CC-BY something like a Universal Donor blood-type in that it has maximal compatibility.

. . . OASPA includes, and will currently still admit, members who use the NC restriction (but not the SA or ND restrictions).

Let’s take a closer look at the question of which license is better:

  • Which is better for readers? For those who just read/consume a work (and those who download, print, and share it), there’s no difference between the two licenses.
  • Which is better for those who want to reuse/remix a work? It depends. CC BY is less restrictive, making reuse easier. But CC BY-SA ensures the openness and reusability of derivative works, and that stipulation arguably leads to reuses/remixes that are inherently better than if they weren’t open.
  • Which is better for authors? It depends on the author’s priorities. CC BY facilitates reuse and broad impact, but some creators of open works want works derived from their works to be open as well.
  • Which is better for openness? As we saw in the arguments from Wikipedia and OASPA, It depends on how you look at it. CC BY makes a given work more open, more reusable. But CC BY-SA fosters openness and builds the universe of open access materials. However, the share-alike stipulation might deter some potential reusers and prevent some reuses from ever happening. How should we think about a license that promotes openness in derivative works but likely prevents some derivative works from ever being made? It’s hard to say!
  • Which do I personally think is better? Philosophically, I’m with Wikipedia and CC BY-SA. I love the idea of a snowball effect of openness. But in practice, I think OASPA has it right: For open access works to have the most impact and do the most good, we need to minimize barriers to reuse. And, when it comes down to it, I’m a practical person. So I (with somewhat conflicted feelings) side with CC BY.
  • But you certainly don’t have to take my word for it! My smart and thoughtful colleague Alycia Sellie is more drawn to CC BY-SA. See her grapple with CC BY vs. CC BY-SA in an Open Access @ CUNY blog post from last summer.

One last note: Yes, I prefer some CC licenses to others. But I embrace all of them as improvements on traditional copyright for scholarly communication and educational publishing!

(This post was derived from a presentation I gave at WikiConference USA on May 31: Whose to Use? And Use As They Choose? Creative Commons Licenses in Wikipedia and Scholarly Publishing.)

Use Markdown to Expand the Reach of Your OER Materials

screenshot of Markdown in action

Photo by Robert Wetzlmayr

When I think about Open Education Resources, I tend to think about two key aspects — access and flexibility. We want material to be freely available to faculty and students, but we also want it to be modifiable. The idea isn’t to preserve material in a fixed state, so much as it is to let people tweak material as they see fit. PDFs are great, but they’re not easy to edit.

This was on my mind when I created OER101: Introduction to Open Education Resources — A 20-minute Course. The content was all available within an open Canvas site, but anyone wishing to reuse it in their own shell, or within a textbook or handout, would need to copy-and-paste content out of Canvas and into whatever tool they were using. They would then need to fix the formatting. Then, they could finally work with the content. It’s not the worst process in the world, but it created an extra step (or two).

I realized all of this could be avoided with Markdown, an easy-to-use markup that makes text very flexible. Markdown can easily be converted to HTML, PDF, Word files, and lots of other formats, often within a Markdown editor, but also just as easily with a third-party application like Pandoc.

Anyone interested in using OER101 can simply download the Markdown files off of GitHub and change them into whatever format(s) work best for them. This lets faculty focus on modifying content and not the mechanics of getting the content into a particular file format.

Markdown is popular in various web communities (even Tumblr supports it…), but a growing number of academics love it for its flexibility.

The beauty of Markdown is that it doesn’t require a special editor. Any text editor can handle it. However, if you’re looking to get up-to-speed on writing it, look for an editor with a live preview, which will let you spotcheck your markup as you compose. This listicle is as good as place as any to start, although I’m partial to the gedit-markdown plugin for Linux and MarkdownPad 2 for Windows.

I’d love to see Markdown files become a standard part of every OER project. It’s an easy way to make sure work can be both shared and modified.