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Open Research Handbook: Open licences

A practical guide to Open Research

About open licences

'Open means anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share for any purpose' (The Open Definition)

The outputs of research, including publications, research data and software code, should be shared under an open licence wherever possible, in order to maximise opportunities for their consultation and re-use by others.

Making available is not the same as making open. Open content has been licensed by or on behalf of the rights-holder as free to use, modify and share for any purpose.

Open licences

Permissions to access and use an item, in order to be a basis that other users can rely on, need to be explicitly stated, irrevocably given and legally recognisable. These conditions are met by making an item available under a licence.

A licence in this context is an official authorisation to make use of specified material. It tells prospective users what they are and are not allowed to do with an item of intellectual property. An item without a licence may be for some practical purposes unusable. A researcher may not use a dataset if they are not permitted to modify or redistribute it; a company would not base commercial operations on third-party software without a warrant that it can be used for the required purpose.

Licences also provide protection to the creators and owners of intellectual property. Accompanied by a rights statement, a licence establishes legal ownership of the licensed item and asserts the right of its creator(s) to be recognised as such. The attribution condition that is common to many open licences is the legal basis of your right to be credited as the creator of the licensed material. Many licences also include formal disclaimers of liability for any harm or damage that may arise from someone else's use of the material.

Open licences have come to be widely used for licensing the outputs of research (as well as other copyright materials) in order to maximise their potential for re-use. Examples of open licences include:

All open licences share certain features:

  • The licence is expressed as a standard set of terms (the legal code) published by the licence provider. In the licence statement attached to a work the legal code should be clearly referenced by means of its URL or by inclusion in full in the licensed material.
  • The licence is essentially permissive (as against all rights reserved copyright and proprietary licences, which are restrictive). Its purpose is to enable other people to make use of the licensed material. The definitive open licence makes an item free to access, use, modify and share by anyone for any purpose. A licence which prohibits use for commercial purposes or the distribution of derived materials does not meet the full definition of an open licence, because of the restrictions these terms place on re-use, but it is still on the open spectrum. There may be valid reasons for publishing under an open licence with some restrictions, such as to protect a commercial interest or prevent misuse of works produced in humanities where the form of expression is integral to their value.
  • The licence usually includes protections for creators and owners of the licensed material, in the form of a liability disclaimer and an attribution requirement. A Public Domain Dedication (such as CC0) does not include an attribution requirement, since it is by definition a waiver of rights in the material, but can still include a liability disclaimer.

The Creative Commons licence suite includes versions with Non-Commercial and No-Derivatives terms. These may be considered open, in that the enable the material to freely access, although they are not open in the fullest sense because of the restrictions they place on re-use. If material cannot be made available under a fully open licence, it is still wise to publish under a standard licence that offers the closest approximation. CC BY-NC may not be an open licence in the fullest sense, but it grants broad permission for use in research and teaching and other non-commercial activities.

The Open Definition provides a list of conformant open licences for creative works (including publications and datasets). The Open Source Initiative lists Open Source licences for software.

The most commonly-used licence for Open Access publications and open data is the Creative Commons Attribution (or CC BY) licence. It has gone through several versions, but the latest and recommended version is Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Users are permitted to freely access, copy, modify and redistribute the licensed material for any purpose (including commercial purposes), providing only that proper attribution is given to the creator(s) and rights-holders(s), and that no legal terms or technological measures are applied to the material to restrict others from using it in accordance with the original licence permissions.

Creative Commons licences are suitable for most kinds of creative work, including educational resources, music, photographs, databases, and government and public sector information. They are not suitable for computer software, for which an Open Source licence should be used.

The Creative Commons suite and some other standard licences also include variant forms with specific restrictions:

Creative Commons provides an overview of the six main licence types.

Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) is the standard licence under which Open Access publications are issued by publishers. The Open Access policies of UKRI, the Wellcome Trust and other funders stipulate that compliant publications must be made available under CC BY. The licence will be applied to an Open Access publication by the publisher on behalf of the author(s), so you will not be required to do anything.

Under the University's Code of Practice on Intellectual Property (7.23-24), the University has a licence to archive copies of publications and make them freely available online, subject to any publisher embargos. It is generally the final accepted manuscript of a publication that authors will deposit in CentAUR, in accordance with the University's Open Access Policy. Archived versions of publications will be made available by default under the terms of the CentAUR End User Agreement. This is not an open licence, since it does not permit distribution or commercial use. But if the published version has been issued under a more open licence, such as CC BY, then these terms will supersede those of the CentAUR End User Agreement.

Final versions of  PhD theses deposited in CentAUR will also be made available under the CentAUR End User Agreement.


There are various licence options for open data, and there is more latitude for creators of datasets to exercise judgement in the selection of a suitable licence. This is because datasets can be complex: they may incorporate intellectual property from multiple sources, and may be subject to various third-party restrictions, for example, concerning re-use for commercial purposes.

As a rule, you should select the most open licence option, and only introduce restrictions where these are justified by the nature of the material or by any third-party requirements. (For example, if a dataset is the product of research undertaken with a commercial partner, the partner may require release of the dataset under a non-commercial licence, in order to protect its commercial privilege.)

If the dataset has been created by multiple authors, or multiple parties have interests in the dataset, you should ensure that any proposed release of data under a specific licence is agreed by all concerned beforehand, as once it has been applied to material a licence cannot be revoked.

The Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC BY) is widely used for the licensing of datasets. It is the default licence recommended by the University's Research Data Archive. Other licences may be used or preferred by some repositories. For example, by default NERC data centres release primary data from NERC-funded research under the Open Government Licence; the Dryad Digital Repository releases data only under the Creative Commons Zero Public Domain Dedication.

When you deposit data in a data repository, you will usually be required to specify the licence terms under which the dataset is to be made available. Most repositories will offer a number of alternative options to choose from. For example, the University Archive offers all flavours of Creative Commons licence (with CC BY as the default), as well as the option to upload your own licence.

As with data, so with software source code: selecting an open licence is a decision that will fall to the creator(s).

Open Source licences have been developed specifically for the open licensing of software source code. They allow software to be freely used, modified, and shared for any purpose, and may be compatible with commercial exploitation of software. They can be particularly powerful in a research context where software is subject to ongoing development, and you are interested in building a community of users and contributors.

Where Creative Commons Attribution has become the de facto standard (or at least the dominant licence) for Open Access publications and open data, there is no pre-eminent Open Source licence, making the selection of the right licence less straightforward. But there is a subset of Open Source licences that are all widely-used:

The Open Source Initiative provides a list of conformant Open Source licences, and there is a useful licence picker tool at Another useful resource, tl;drLegal provides plain English summaries of many Open Source licences.

A useful way to distinguish Open Sources licences is between those that are broadly permissive, allowing anyone to use the code for any purpose (e.g. Apache 2.0 and MIT), and 'copyleft' licences, which require any modified versions of the code to be licensed under the same terms (e.g. the GNU General Public License). Copyleft is analoguous to a licence such as Creative Commons Share-Alike. Because a lot of software is developed for or may be re-purposed to have commercial applications, there is a strong tradition of copyleft licensing as an effective means to protect against source code being privatised for profit-making purposes. (It is, though, important to state that Open Source licensing is by no means incompatible with successful commercial exploitation, through monetisation of ancillary services, such as support and consultancy.)

For detailed guidance on software licensing, consult our guide to publishing research software.

To issue material under a licence, you should clearly mark the material with both a rights statement and a licence statement. These combined statements make clear to any prospective user who is the owner of copyright and other intellectual property rights in the licensed item, and the terms on which the item can be used.

The rights and licence statements should be included in the public information recorded about the item (such as a metadata record in a data repository, or the landing page of a code repository), as well as on the item itself and/or in its primary documentation (such as a readme file or user manual). You do not necessarily have to mark all individual files within a dataset or code repository with these statements, providing item-level statements are clearly visible.

Most publishers and data repositories will include include rights and licence statements as standard on the public landing page or metadata record for an item. Publication PDFs are usually also marked with this information. Data repositories should provide fields where rights and licence details can be entered in online metadata. Licence statements should include the URL to the full legal code of the licence used (the URL can be embedded in text or a licence logo image).

It is important that the rights statement identify all owners of intellectual property in the material. For example, the rights statement for a piece of software written by a member of University staff jointly with student John Smith must identify the University and John Smith as rights-holders (assuming the student has not assigned his IP to any other party under contract).

A complete rights and licence statement will include the following elements:

[Copyright or ©] [publication year] [names of rights-holder(s)]. [name of licence] [URL to licence code or licence code in full].

Examples of combined rights and open licence statements are:

© 2019 University of Reading. This dataset is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License:

Copyright 2019 University of Reading and John Smith. This software is licensed under the Apache License, Version 2.0:

Who owns your research outputs? It is important to be clear about this, as it will determine whether and how you are authorised to license and distribute them, and who should be identified as the rights-holder.

Ownership is associated with the creators of intellectual property (IP), although creators do not necessarily own the IP themselves. It should be borne in mind that in many cases research outputs are the products of multiple hands, and ownership may be jointly held by several parties.

The general rules, following the University's Code of Practice on Intellectual Property, are as follows:

  • The authors of a scholarly publication (e.g. an article or monograph) jointly own copyright in the work, and employees of the University grant the University a licence to archive the material and make it freely available online, subject to any embargoes agreed with the publisher.
  • The University owns other intellectual property created by University staff in the course of their employment. This includes datasets and software.
  • Students own their own intellectual property, which includes their theses, any publications, datasets and software created by them.

These rules apply in the absence of any contract that specifies otherwise. The following contracts may affect ownership of IP:

  • Research collaboration or partnership agreements: it is standard in such agreements for each party to own IP it has created, but it is always wise to check the IP clauses of any agreement.
  • Contractor agreements: where one party is commissioned to create IP under contract to another party, then ownership is likely to reside with the commissioning party. For example, if a company is contracted to carry out a survey on behalf of the University, ownership of the survey results is likely to reside with the University.
  • Student industrial sponsorship/CASE agreements: it is customary in these agreements for ownership of student-created IP to reside with either the student or the University.
  • Student IP assignment agreements: in some cases, for example, where the University has made a significant financial or intellectual contribution to the research, a student may be asked to assign IP to the University under a formal IP assignment agreement. Further information can be found in the University's Code of Practice on Intellectual Property.

Standard grant agreements from public and charitable funders do not claim ownership of any IP generated under the agreements.

If you need to locate a copy of any of the above agreements, or wish to clarify the terms of an agreement, you should contact your Contracts Manager. Students wishing to obtain a copy of a funding agreement can contact either the Contracts Manager for their School or their PGR Administrator.

Are you authorised to license and distribute your research outputs? If you do not own them outright, you may need to obtain permission from other parties first. Where an output has been produced under a collaboration, partnership, studentship or other research agreement, notice may have to be given to other parties to the agreement in advance of publishing the output, even if the other parties have no ownership of the IP in question.

In accordance with its Statement on Open Research, the University is committed to making its research outputs open and accessible to the fullest extent possible. Therefore, where the University owns a research output, employees are authorised on its behalf to issue the output under a suitable open licence, providing this is consistent with any legal, ethical or commercial restrictions that may apply.

If staff at other universities in the UK, Europe, North America or Australasia are co-creators of the output, the permission of these universities to distribute the output under an open licence can usually be assumed, as this will be consistent with universities' policies on Open Access and research data. Outside of these regions it may be wise to check.

Where an output has been created under a collaboration, CASE/industrial sponsorship or IP transfer agreement, or if other parties were involved in creating the output, you will need to obtain permission from them to license and distribute it. Collaboration and CASE/industrial sponsorship agreements usually contain Publication clauses that stipulate a standard procedure requiring any publishing party to give the other party 30 days' notice of the intended publication. Under an IP transfer agreement, prior written approval for publication from a supervisor or University officer may be required. An agreement should nominate the person to whom notices can be addressed (e.g. an industrial supervisor or company legal representative). When notifying other parties of the intended publication of an output, it is important to specify the licence terms under which you propose to release the item.

Irrespective of who owns an output, it should not be licensed and distributed without the knowledge and consent of its creators.You should ensure any colleagues with other organisations who had a hand in creating the output are aware of your intention to publish it and the terms on which it will be made available. 

Research outputs may incorporate and modify or add to third-party material. For example, one researcher may modify software created by someone else for use in a project; another researcher may compile datasets from several sources to create a new dataset. In such scenarios the creation of new IP incorporates existing IP. To be able to distribute the new IP, the researchers would need authorisation from the owners of the existing IP.

If the existing IP has been made available under an open licence, then it will be straightforward to licence and distribute the modified material, providing any attribution and share-alike terms are met. (Note that a share-alike or copyleft term would prohibit you from re-licensing the specified material under different terms.)

If the existing IP has not been made available under an open licence, this is likely to constrain how you can distribute the modified material.

  • If the original material has been licensed under more restrictive terms, for example, permitting non-commercial re-use only, then you may have to release the modified version under the same terms.
  • If the original material is a commercial product supplied under a proprietary licence, then it is unlikely you will be able to distribute the modified version at all.
  • If the original material has not been supplied under a licence, or no terms of use have been specified by the provider, you cannot assume it is free to use and distribute. You would need to contact the provider in order to clarify terms of use and whether you have permission to license and distribute the material. It is essential that you do this as early as possible before committing yourself to using materials that you may not be able to distribute.

Useful links