Wanted: Single standard for open-content licenses

The use of open, sharable course materials is transforming education worldwide: Educators across the globe are taking open digital content items and repurposing them for their own classrooms; universities in Vietnam have begun translating materials available through MIT’s OpenCourseWare program; and in Japan, leading universities have come together and agreed to make much of their courseware open as well. (See “Web fuels ‘democratization’ of knowledge.”)

But this movement toward open course materials for education has created something of a problem. Although a vast number of repositories have been set up to allow users to download sharable content, many of these sites contain materials that use different licensing agreements. This poses a challenge for educators looking to combine material from different repositories into a single presentation or piece of work.

“Some sites are completely unclear as to the terms under which the material is licensed,” says James Boyle, a professor at Duke University Law School. “Some have no clear policy, some have quite restrictive policies, and some have created their own licenses.”

As an example, Boyle cited two different licensing structures: the GNU Free Documentation License, which governs the use of materials such as the free internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, and the Creative Commons licenses, which control the use of more than 200 million digital objects posted online by authors, scientists, artists, and educators who want to share their works, and others’, without fear of copyright infringement. (MIT’s pioneering OpenCourseWare project uses one of Creative Commons’ several licensing agreements.)

The GNU Free Documentation License “has some interoperability problems with Creative Commons licenses,” said Boyle. “It’s not clear if you can take material from Wikipedia and material from a Creative Commons site and put them together to make something new out of it.”

Now, a new initiative from the nonprofit Creative Commons aims to solve this problem. Called CC Learn, the project seeks to create a single, standard licensing framework that can encompass all open educational resources (OERs).

CC Learn aims to do for the licensing of OERs what the Sharable Content Object Reference Model, or SCORM, has done for the interoperability and accessibility of such objects. (See “Gathering SCORM could transform eLearning.”)

Currently, educators looking to combine materials available in these OER repositories must either ask the repositories what their licenses allow and prohibit, or look through these licenses themselves. Some licenses might allow users to combine materials with items covered under another license, while others might not. The people behind CC Learn are trying to make this process easier and ensure that all open educational materials can be combined.

“If the intent is to make … educational materials openly available, those materials ought to be able to be combined with others from different repositories,” said Michael Carroll, associate professor of law at Villanova University Law School and a member of the steering committee for CC Learn. “There ought to be a global commons of educational materials, and that can only work if the license terms are standardized. Part of the idea is to get folks who want to share their educational material to use a public license that makes users aware of what their rights are.”

CC Learn is not advocating that all OERs use the same licensing agreement; instead, the group will initiate discussions among educators and repositories about how to create some sort of standard framework when it comes to licensing. By creating a certain standard, or common language, for OER licenses, it will be much easier for educators to create projects using materials that are covered under various licenses, the group says. As a result, CC Learn hopes to see an educator be able to take a spreadsheet from OpenCourseWare and a video from Rice University’s Connexions and use them both in a project, for example. (See “Rice builds body of knowledge.”)

“The goal has to be whatever kind of license you use, it works easily and in a simple way with another, so you know what you can do and what you can’t do,” said Boyle, who also is on the steering committee for CC Learn. “We haven’t gotten there yet. That’s the most important task of CC Learn.”

Besides creating some sort of common framework among the different licensing organizations and repositories, CC Learn aims to reach educators not familiar with Creative Commons or other licenses to get the word out about licensing their works so they are free of copyright obstacles. The group’s effort has the potential to open up millions of other documents and multimedia materials to schools and people around the world, Boyle said.

“I expect CC licensing in educational settings to radically reduce the cost of education around the world, resulting in a major reduction of problems associated with the digital divide,” said Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and another member of the CC Learn steering committee.

CC Learn hopes to begin its work in earnest this summer; as of press time, the initiative was too new even to have its own web page. The group also has not set a timetable for reaching its objectives.

“The No. 1 goal here is to break down barriers between sites and make the materials that are supposedly open educational resources open,” concluded Boyle. “We’re the kind of people who are nudging people toward openness.”


Creative Commons


“Web fuels ‘democratization’ of knowledge” (eSN Online, March 2007)

“Open content learning portal debuts” (eSN Online, March 2007)


“Curriki offers new world of course content” (eSN Online, January 2007)


“Rice builds body of knowledge” (eSN Online, July 2006)

“Gathering SCORM could transform eLearning” (eSN Online, April 2006)

“New site aims to help students, educators find royalty-free works” (eSN Online, May 2002)


eSchool News Staff

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