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What is a licence?

In its most basic form, a licence is a set of ‘permissions’ to perform an action, or series of actions, where these permissions are outside the normal rights of the person/persons to do so. The issue of a ‘licence’ or set of permissions, is sometimes the result of a financial transaction (for example, the purchase of a television licence) or after passing a test for competency (for example, a driving licence).

When we apply this to research, and particularly to the published outputs from research (the literature, datasets, and other content relating to research findings), this enables others some form of rights to access, use, re-use, re-format, or sell the content, so long as the requirements laid down in the licence are adhered to.

Who controls the licence?

The owner or authority of the content controls how it is licenced and to what extent. In the published literature, this falls to the copyright holder of the content.

Different licence schemes and how they apply to research

There are many ways to licence or provide permission for your research outputs. This will depend on several factors, including the type of output produced, and who owns the copyright to it.

Publisher licences

Publishers can issue licences over the content for which they have assumed copyright; these may provide permissions to read, download, use, re-post, remix, and perform other actions on the content, for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Publisher licences tend to be more restrictive than open licencing standards, allowing only the minimum access and use rights.

Open licences

You can choose from a number of open licencing schemes available. The type of licence you choose depends on the type of content being published, and what range and level of permissions you desire.

Below are some examples of open licence schemes:

Creative Commons


  • Probably one of the most recognisable and most frequently used licencing schemes
  • Used by open access publishers of research literature, and more recently taken up by funding organisations as a requirement for funded research
  • Creative Commons provides a framework for the use, download, reposting, remixing, and re-distribution of works, providing a range of licences dependent on need
  • Largely used for literature, but can also be used for other works, such as still or moving images and datasets


Attribution (CC BY)

This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.


Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.


Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND)

This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.


Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.


Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.


More information is available on the Creative Commons website.



Open Government Licence

  • The Open Government Licence is a UK-based public sector information licence scheme, developed and held by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) and used for the release and sharing of public sector information held under Crown Copyright, or by UK Government departments.
  • Datasets, such as health and other survey data are released under the OGL through the portal

GNU General Public Licence

  • GNU is a copyleft software licencing system supported and sponsored by the Free Software Foundation; the GNU licence is designed for the release and use of software and other content
  • GNU GPL provides standardised permissions for the use and modification (or restrictions thereof) of software and is widely used

Open Data Commons

ODC is a set of legal tools from the Open Knowledge Foundation, specifically designed to support the sharing, use, remixing and repurposing of research data

There are three types of licence:
- Public Domain Dedication and License (PDDL) — “Public Domain for data/databases”

- Attribution License (ODC-By) — “Attribution for data/databases”

- Open Database License (ODC-ODbL) — “Attribution Share-Alike for data/databases”

More details can be viewed here.

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