Open access means not only that scholarly publications are freely accessible but also that they may be extensively reused. To clearly indicate what users are allowed to do with an open access publication, it can be made available under an open content licence, for example a Creative Commons licence. Open content licences are standardised licences that allow the public to use the works in particular ways. This increases not only the usage possibilities but also the visibility of the works. However, authors may grant open licences only if they have not already granted a third party – for example a publisher – exclusive rights of use in the works.

Standardised licensing models frequently used in the area of science and re­search include the Creative Commons (CC) licences, the Digital Peer Publishing Licences (DPPL), and the GNU Initiative’s Free Documentation Licence (GNU-FDL). Whereas the CC and DPPL licences are internationally compatible, the GNU-FDL is tailored to the Anglo-American legal area. The licences are used for the purpose of enabling open access to scholarly knowledge. By making works available under an open content licence, they may be reused without having to ask the rights holder’s permission. When making a work available to the public under an open licence, a reference to the licence and a link to the licence text are provided. The minimum requirements when reusing the licensed open access publication is that appropriate credit must be given to the author of the work and a link must be provided to the licence. If changes have been made to the work, this must be indicated. Further-reaching consideration, in particular the payment of a fee for the exercise of rights of use granted under the licence, is not provided for in the standard licensing models.

The Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities calls for a free worldwide right of access to scholarly publications and the granting of a licence to copy, use, distribute, transmit, and display the works publicly and to make and distribute derivative works for any responsible purpose subject to proper attribution of authorship. Moreover, users should have the right to make a small number of copies for their personal use. 

When choosing a suitable licence for one’s own open access publication, care should be taken to ensure that a free right of access to the work and the right to reuse it in the aforementioned ways are guaranteed.

Creative Commons Licenses for Open Access

Common Licensing Models

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organisation that offers standardised licences that enable others to reuse works. With these CC licences, authors can specify the terms and conditions under which the respective works may be reused. On the Creative Commons website, you will find details of the CC licences and a comprehensive list of FAQs.

The latest international ("unported") version of the CC licences is Version 4.1. Ported versions of the Version 3.0 licences – that is, versions that ha­ve been adapted to a particular jurisdiction – are available for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. With regard to the requirements laid down in the Berlin Declaration, whereby in particular the making of derivative works and the use of works for any responsible purpose, and thus also for commercial purposes, should be permitted, the only CC licences that are "genuinely" open access licences are the CC BY and CC BY-SA licences.

In particular the NC (NonCommercial) component involves some difficul­ties, as it is often controversial whether cases constitute commercial use. Classical examples are the reuse of works on commercial platforms, at private educational institutions, or by non-profit educational providers that charge fees for certain services in order to cover their costs, and that thus act commercially. Therefore the use of the NC component is discouraged by many.

Besides CC licences, cultural heritage institutions and the operators of cultural heritage platforms can also use the licences, which are specially tailored to their needs.

The Digital Peer Publishing Licences (DPPL) were created on the basis of German law with funding from the State of North Rhine-Westphalia. They regulate free access to publications through modules with different degrees of permissiveness. No distinction is made between scholarly and commercial use. Because the licensed work may be distributed only electronically, the rights to use it in printed form or on carrier media are not covered by the licence and remain with the authors. Moreover, in contrast to the CC licences, the DPPL apply only to textual works. The individual DPPL modules, and FAQs about them, can be found on the website of the North Rhine-Westphalian Library Service Center (hbz). With regard to the requirements laid down in the Berlin Declaration, whereby users should be granted the right to freely access the licensed work and to make derivative works, the modular DPPL does not meet the definition of open access used.

The GNU Free Documentation License (GNU FDL or GFDL) provided by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is based on US copyright law. The cur­rent version is Version 1.3, which was released in 2008. The licence hails from the software scene, and its characteristic feature is the "copyleft" principle, whereby all derivative works must themselves be released under the same licence as the original works. The special feature of the GNU FDL 1.3 is that certain materials released under that licence may be relicensed and used under the terms of the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence. It is questionable, however, whether the GNU FDL can be considered legally watertight in Germany, as it includes an exclusion of liability (warranty disclaimer) for wilful intent, which is not permissible under German law. However, the disclaimer renders only the corresponding clause in the licence text invalid, not the licensing agreement as a whole. Moreover, with the exception of the possibility of excluding certain parts of the work from adaptation, the licence fulfils the requirements of the Berlin Declaration. 

The sample STM Licences released by the Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers in 2014 are not open access licences within the meaning of the Berlin Declaration. The three full licences and two supplementary licences reserve certain commercial rights. It is not advised to use the supplementary licences as supplements to CC licen­ces, because the risk for the users is that the CC licences will thus be­come invalid, as they may be amended only by an individual agreement in writing. If a supplementary STM licence is used as a supplement to a CC licence, it must also be made clear that the licence is no longer a CC licence. In particular, the CC icons should no longer be used. However, this would be contrary to the uncomplicated use of standard licences.

Research data can also be published open access, and their reuse can be regulated via licences. Open licences maximise the sharing of research data and thus their dissemination and visibility. The most frequently used licences are:

  • Creative Commons (CC)
  • GNU General Public Licence (GPL) / designed for software
  • Open Data Commons (ODC) / designed for data collections

As from Version 4.0, the CC licences are also suitable for research data. In the case of earlier versions, the protective effect is questionable.

The licence chosen should be the one whose terms are suitable for the field, discipline, and data type in question. However, to comply with the FAIR Principles, the use of a CC BY licence is recommended.

How Exactly do Creative Commons Licenses Work?

The Correct Indication of a License

Open Licenses for Open Research

Practical Tip provides detailed information about Creative Commons licences for research data and about publishing research data.

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