Using Copyrighted Material

If you are including digital media that you did not create yourself, or significant portions of text from a published source, you should use openly licensed materials under a Creative Commons license or in the public domain.

Note: Including small portions of text from other works in your open textbook or linking to multimedia (i.e., a YouTube video under copyright) does not pose any copyright issues. In this case, simply follow the same citation practices followed whenever quoting or paraphrasing someone else’s work. See Citing Sources & Attributing Copyright.

If you need to use digital media or significant amounts of text from a work under strict copyright terms, MacEwan’s Copyright Services ( can assist with making a fair dealing assessment and help explore other options as necessary.

Why You Should Use Openly Licensed Materials

Using strictly copyrighted material (i.e., works stating All rights reserved or requiring special permissions) creates a barrier to the usage of your open textbook.

To use copyrighted material in your textbook, you should first verify if it can be used under fair dealing in consultation with MacEwan Copyright Services (, and may need to obtain written permission from the copyright holder. You then must clearly note in the textbook which material is under copyright so others using the book know when they cannot reuse or modify that material and must either replace it or also obtain permission from the copyright holder.

Creative Commons licensed material and material in the public domain, on the other hand, can legally be shared and reused without requiring permission or conducting a fair dealing assessment – this is one of the best things about open textbooks!

Understanding Creative Commons Licenses

WATCH: Creating OER and combining licenses (video)

Attribution (CC BY) – Others can distribute, and build upon this work, even commercially, as long as credit is given to the original author or creator.
Attribution Share Alike (CC BY-SA) – Others can distribute, and build upon this work, even commercially, as long as they credit the original author or creator and license their new creations under the identical terms.
Attribution Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC) – Others can build upon this work non-commercially. Derivative works must acknowledge the author or creator, but do not need to be licensed under the same terms.
Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike (CC BY-NC-SA) – Others can distribute, and build upon this work non-commercially, as long as they credit the original author or creator and license their new creations under identical terms.
Attribution No Derivatives (CC BY-ND) – This work can be redistributed, commercially and non-commercially, as long as it is passed along unchanged, with credit to the author or creator.
Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (CC BY-NC-ND) – Others can download and share this work as long as credit is given to the author or creator, and the work is left unchanged and used non-commercially.
Adapted from About the Licenses by Creative Commons licensed under CC BY.  Icons by The Noun Project.

License Types for Open Textbooks

Ideally, resources added to an existing textbook as part of a modification or newly created textbook should use a CC-BY license or CC BY-NC license. Other Creative Commons licenses are acceptable except for the CC-BY-ND and CC-BY-NC-ND (no derivatives) licenses as these do not allow the content to be revised, which limits educational uses.

When it comes to working with open textbooks (and open educational resources in general), one of the conceptual hurdles faced by many people is around the notion of adapting or changing someone’s work. What exactly can be adapted within the scope of an open textbook, and won’t the original author get upset if you change their work?

Changing someone’s work can feel uncomfortable. But be assured that if the author of the textbook has released their textbook under a Creative Commons license that allows for adaptation (which is any Creative Commons license that does not have a No Derivative [ND] attribution added to it), they expect that you will change the content, providing that you give them the proper attribution.

What Can You Change?

Anything and everything in an open textbook can be changed as long as the conditions of the open license are met. The modifications or changes you make can be fairly minor or major depending on what you need to do to make the book work for you. That is the beauty and power of open textbooks. You are in charge of the resource. You have been given permission to change it ahead of time by the original author. Take advantage of it!

No Derivative (ND) Attribution Licenses

If the book you are looking to adapt has a No Derivative (ND) license you still have the option of writing to the original author(s) to ask if you can adapt their work for your teaching. If they say no, you can still use the text (or chapters of the text) in your teaching, but can’t adapt or change the wording of the chapters, or chapter organization of the textbook.

Using Copyright Material in Your Open Textbook

Be careful if you are consulting copyrighted textbooks when writing your new open content. Make sure that your newly created open textbook is not significantly based on, or adapted from an already existing copyrighted work without permission.

Note that charts, tables, figures, etc. used in academic journals are often copyrighted by those journals and should not be used unless the journal is published under an open license or permission has been granted.

Open access content can be used and cited under the terms of the Creative Commons license of that journal or book.

Content adapted from “About Creative Commons Licenses” in the Ryerson Open Textbook Authoring Guide by Ryerson University licensed under CC-BY 4.0. Includes updates to the “Understanding Creative Commons Licenses” section.


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MacEwan Open Textbook Authoring Guide Copyright © 2019 by MacEwan University Library is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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