What do I need to know about open licensed assets?

In this resource, Naomi Korn Associates’ Senior Consultant Debbie McDonnell breaks down what you need to know about open licensed assets; what they are, what the implications of using them on your heritage organisation’s digital content is and how you can use other people’s openly licensed content in your own work.

This resource is available in English and Welsh
Painting of a little girl deep in thought holding a pencil to her mouth.
Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust. CC0

What do I need to know about open licensed assets?

1. What are open licensed assets?

Open licensed assets are types of creative content that are made available for everyone to freely use, share and adapt under an open licence. The assets can be images, artworks, text, music, or videos and are usually protected by copyright. Open licensed assets are sometimes called Free Cultural Works.

Your organisation produces creative content all the time, including online resources, images of objects in your collection and educational materials. You can decide to publish this content under an open licence as a way of sharing your assets with the widest possible audience and encouraging the public to interact with your organisation. Many funders, like the National Heritage Lottery Fund, make open licensing a requirement to ensure that funded materials are made freely available to the public.

Many funders, like the National Heritage Lottery Fund, make open licensing a requirement to ensure that funded materials are made freely available to the public.

You can decide to use open licensed assets created by other people in your resources as they provide a rich supply for the heritage sector to reuse in educational, marketing or research materials.

Painting of a little girl deep in thought holding a pencil to her mouth.

A Deep Problem, Catherine Madox Brown, 1875. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust, licensed under CC0]


2. Why do I need a licence to share content from my organisation?

A licence is a method of giving people permission to use copyright protected content. Most assets you create or use in your organisation are protected by copyright law. If you post your assets online, they can only be downloaded or reused by others with permission of the rights holder or under the limited exceptions to copyright law such as private study or quotation.

Illustration of a full bin with its lid off and a fly flying out with the caption For Health's Sake Keep the lid on this fly can carry away germs to poison your food

A full dustbin with the lid lifted off; representing the danger of food poisoning through flies and bins. Colour lithograph, ca. 1964. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


3. What is an open licence?

An open licence is an upfront permission allowing anyone to share and adapt creative content without needing to contact the rights holder. If you want your audience to reuse your assets easily, an open licence is a clear invitation to do so.


4. Are there different types of open licences?

Yes, Creative Commons licences are the most popular open licences in the heritage sector as they have clear licensing terms and are recognised internationally. Any content created with National Lottery Heritage Fund funding needs to be published under the CC-BY 4.0 licence. CC-BY allows everyone to share and adapt the content for any purpose including commercial. Users must credit the rights holder and indicate whether any changes have been made.

A licence needs to have few or no restrictions to be open. Other frequently used open licences are the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike licence (CC-BY-SA), Public Domain dedication CC0, or Public Domain Mark licences as well as the UK Open Government Licence, the Unsplash licence and the Pixabay licence. Always check the terms of the open licence. They are usually worded so that they are easy to understand.

Creative Commons offers other types of licences that do not allow adaptations or commercial uses. These are not considered open licences.


5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing your own assets under an open licence?

There are many benefits to publishing content from your heritage organisation under an open licence including:

  • Easy for others to use in blogs, social media, student projects, educational materials and research – promoting your work to a larger audience.
  • Encourages creative reuse such as printing on fashion items, appearing in digital storytelling or featuring in video games – all with a credit to your organisation.
  • Increased visibility of your assets through search engines for open licensed content leading to increased traffic to websites, digital platforms and interactions on social media.
  • Low administrative resources as assets automatically available.
  • More benefits are listed in the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Digital guide: working with open licences.

The disadvantages depend on your objective for choosing open licensed assets:

  • They cannot make a direct income as there is no licence fee. However you can use open licensed assets to promote your work which may lead to paid opportunities.
  • Open licences such as Creative Commons are irrevocable which means the licence terms are still valid even if you change your mind and take down your asset.
  • Less control over use of assets as need to trust users to keep to the terms of the open licence or dedicate resources to managing breaches of the licence terms.


6. Sharing your own assets under an open licence

Anyone can publish their own content under an open licence. Key considerations before sharing open licensed assets are:

1. Copyright ownership?
Is your asset protected by copyright? If yes, you need to own the copyright or obtain specific permission from the rights holder to publish under an open licence otherwise you will not be lawfully allowed to make the asset available.

2. Embedded copyright works?
Are there any works in copyright featured in the asset? For example, a photograph showing an artwork or a video with someone reading a poem. You need to obtain specific permission from any rights holders whose works feature in the asset, otherwise you will not be lawfully allowed to make the asset available.

3. Other rights?
Are there data protection or other rights associated with your asset? You need to seek permission from any living identifiable individuals (including those appearing in photographs and films, named in documents etc) to use their personal data under the terms of the open licence you have selected. If your asset features logos, trademarks or contains defamatory or illegal subject matter, you need to check whether open licensing is permitted under the relevant laws.

4. Choose the right open licence
Select the open licence most suitable for your asset(s), your objectives and the funding requirements. Do you need users to credit your organisation? Do you want to ensure any adaptations are shared under the same terms? If your asset is not protected by copyright, you can still benefit from open licensing by selecting the Public Domain Mark. Creative Commons provide a useful Licence Chooser tool to help you decide.

5. Ensure that the open licence is clearly identifiable
It is recommended that you mark your asset with a credit statement and a link to the licence terms. The Creative Commons Licence Chooser tool produces a recommended icon, credit or attribution statement and html code to embed in the asset for the licence you select.


7. Using someone else’s open licensed assets

There is a vast range of open licensed assets available for your organisation to reuse in educational resources, research materials, and much more. See the Sources of Creative Commons licensed content for fantastic images to enliven blogs and presentations.

Before using someone else’s open licensed assets, it is recommended to:

  • Carry out a sense check that the person or organisation posting the asset is the rights holder, or has permission from the rights holder. As a rule, the more respected the source, the more certainty you have that the open licensed asset has been authorised.
  • Check your intended use falls within the terms of the open licence. They are usually worded so they are easy to understand.
  • Credit the artist or creator, rights holder (if different), source and licence type, preferably with a link to the licence terms.


8. Learn more about copyright


More help here

A Pepsis heros, a species of insect native to Peru on a white background

Working With Open Licences: A Guide For Projects

The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s licensing requirement supports open access to the rich heritage in the UK and the exciting possibilities of digital transformation in the cultural sector. All materials created or digitised with grant funding are subject to this requirement. This guide explains open licensing and provides a step-by-step approach to the open licensing requirement for each stage of your project. It is aimed at The National Lottery Heritage Fund applicants and grantees but contains useful information for anyone who supports open access to cultural heritage.

Cube shaped digital wall created with white light in a dark space.

Creating digital resources: GDPR, copyright and using open licences

This digital guide includes information on data protection and copyright, along with a range of tools, templates, checklists and frequently asked questions to help you take the right steps in open licencing and meeting GDPR requirements. It is aimed at The National Lottery Heritage Fund applicants and grantees and provides guidance on the default CC BY 4.0 licence requirements for your project outputs. It includes a downloadable toolkit.

Published: 2022
Resource type: Articles

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "What do I need to know about open licensed assets? (2022) by Debbie McDonnell, Naomi Korn Associates supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


More help here

Digital Heritage Hub is managed by Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with The Heritage Digital Consortium and The University of Leeds. It has received Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and National Lottery funding, distributed by The Heritage Fund as part of their Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. Digital Heritage Hub is free and answers small to medium sized heritage organisations most pressing and frequently asked digital questions.

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