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The home page of Indiana University Libraries' guide to copyright law.

Open Access

Open access logo of an orange padlock that is unlocked.The open access movement seeks to provide free access online to works, particularly scholarly journals. 

In the late 1990's and early 2000's, the serials crisis led to criticism by academics and librarians of the existing model for publishing. Many of these journals were owned by multinational publishers who raised their journals' subscription prices far in excess of inflation.  Journal subscriptions were consuming an ever increasing share of library budgets.  Scientific, technology, mathematical, and medical journals were at the heart of the serials crisis.  Humanities journals were less affected.

Critics noted that universities and governments were paying their staff to do research, their staff then gave their articles free to publishers, then the universities and governments had to pay the publishers to get access to their own employees' work.  The publishers obtained free labor and then sold the results back to the people who produced it.

Besides the financial costs to subscribers, the control of journal articles by publishers limited their availability.  Researchers unaffiliated with large institutions lacked access to information as did independent scholars, students, and scientists abroad in poorer countries.  The taxpayers who financed much of the research reported in those articles also lacked access.

Academics want their articles used by other researchers and citation analysis shows how often articles are referred to by others.  The issue of journal access meant academics were hurt both by not being able to see others' work but citation to their own work was being limited by the lack of access.

A series of conferences and organizations produced declarations of policy about access to research, among them the the Budapest Open Access Initiative (2002), the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (2003), the IFLA Statement on Open Access to Scholarly Literature and Research Documentation (2003), the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (2003), the ACRL Principles and Strategies for the reform of Scholarly Communication (2003), the OECD Principles and Guidelines for Access to Publicly Funded Research Data (2007), the Durham Statement on Open Access to Legal Scholarship (2008), the Ghent Declaration: Seizing the Opportunity for Open Access to European Research (2011), and the Alhambra Declaration on Open Access (2011).  The Open Access Directory has a much longer list of declarations and statements on open access.

The Budapest statement defined "open access" as

By "open access" to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

More succinctly, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition defines open access as "the free, immediate, online availability of research articles, coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment."

Free Content & Open Content

Free content is that which users can reuse without permission, subject to minimal restrictions.  Works in the public domain are free content, as are those under certain licenses.  Some of the Creative Commons licenses are considered free content, such as those requiring users to share any derivative works they create with the same license as the original creator licensed his work or the license requiring the original creator be identified.  Those that forbid commerical use of a work or the creation of derivative works are not considered free content.

"Open content" is a phrase coined by David Wiley, who drafted the Open Content License, the text of which is here.  This license is based on "the Five R's," namely:

  1. Retain - the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  2. Reuse - the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise - the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix - the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. Redistribute - the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons license was created to make it easier for works to be shared.  The current copyright law provides for automatic copyright protection without a way to automatically grant permission to others to use the work.  The Creative Commons license is a way for creators to grant blanket licenses to users simply and with minimal costs.  The Creative Commons organization says its licenses "give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. The combination of our tools and our users is a vast and growing digital commons, a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law."

The basic right in all Creative Commons license is that users are free to copy and distribute the work without modification for non-commercial purposes.  There are four conditions that creators can put on the basic license.  First, is the right of attribution, meaning that a user must give credit to the creator.  (This is abbreviated "BY.")  Second is "sharealike," abbreviated "SA", which means users can take your work and build upon it—remixing a song, using a photograph in a collage—as long as they acknowledge the original creator's work and license their derivative works on the same terms.  Third is that the work may only be used for non-commercial purposes, abbreviated "NC."  The fourth condition is that users may not make derivative works and cannot alter the work; this is abbreviated "ND."

There is a series of icons representing each of these conditions and their combinations that can be used as a shorthand indicator of the Creative Commons license being used.  There are six combinations of conditions which are regularly used, as shown in this chart from Wikipedia.

Icon Description Acronym Free content
File:CC BY icon.svg Attribution alone BY Yes
File:CC BY-ND icon-88x31.png Attribution + NoDerivatives BY-ND No
File:CC BY-SA icon.svg Attribution + ShareAlike BY-SA Yes
File:CC BY-NC icon-88x31.png Attribution + Noncommercial BY-NC No
CC-by-NC-ND icon Attribution + Noncommercial + NoDerivatives BY-NC-ND No
File:CC BY-NC-SA icon 88x31.png Attribution + Noncommercial + ShareAlike BY-NC-SA No

The Creative Commons website makes choosing a license simple.  By answering a few questions, the user can get the proper icons and language to mark a work, whether that is an article, a photograph, or a webpage.  The website will also generate language to place on offline works and HTML code for online works.  Creative Commons also has tools that allow users to mark their work as public domain and waive all rights to it.  Creative Commons has guidance on issues to consider when choosing a license and a list of frequently asked questions.

Further Reading