UKOLN AHDS Choosing Alternative Licences For Digital Content


Licences are a core part of intellectual property rights management. Licences allow the copyright holder to devolve specific rights to use, store, copy and disseminate work to another party.

Licences are typically restrictive, and acceptable uses of the licensed work are carefully delineated. However, copyright holders may wish to encourage widespread sharing and use of their work. In these situations an alternative licensing model may be appropriate.

Should I Choose an Alternative Licence?

To identify if an alternative licence is appropriate, the following questions should be addressed:

If the answer to these questions is yes, then an alternative licence agreement may be appropriate.

The developer has a number of options when planning to release their work: including creating their own licence or using an existing one. Both options have recognisable benefits. The bespoke licence allows the developer to define their own terms and conditions, while rejecting conditions with which they disagree. However, the creation of a licence can be a long process that may result in the licence containing legal loopholes.

An alternative is to use an existing 'copyleft' licence. Copyleft is an umbrella term that may refer to several similar licences. When choosing a licence, the developer must consider their own needs:

Licensing Digital Works

Many authors argue the traditional copyright restrictions opposes the free distribution of digital works, whether they are text, graphics, or sound, on the Internet. This could be for a variety of reasons; the author wishes to spread their ideas; they wish to attract feedback on their work, etc. For these purposes, traditional copyright and public domain licences are unsuitable.

Creative Commons is a particularly popular licencing model available to all creative works. It is therefore usual to find it applied to Web sites, scholarship, music, film, photography and literature that are not traditionally covered by similar distribution schemes.

Similar to the GNU General Public Licence, Creative Commons licences allow the author to give the reader specific rights, such as permission to distribute the work and make derivatives, without resolving copyright of the original work. Though these freedoms encourage comparisons to the public domain, the Creative Commons licences are more restrictive, placing specific provisos upon the work:

  1. The author must be credited.
  2. Any derivative works must meet the licensing criteria established by the author. Derivatives cannot be place in public domain without permission.

To encourage authors to use Creative Commons [1] the developers provide an online multiple-choice form to choose the most appropriate licence model. At the time of writing, eleven variations exist that differ according to four different values (attribution, non-commercial, derivative works and share alike). These can be found on the Creative Commons licence agreement page [2]. In addition, a specifically developed metadata set is provided, allowing an individual to easily find and use work.

The Creative Commons licence may be suitable for individuals who wish their work to be seen and used by as many people as possible, but do not want to give away their rights. It may be unsuitable for businesses that wish to charge for access or restrict content in some way.


Copyleft licences [3] such as the Creative Commons may promote free dissemination, however there is little encouragement for businesses that wish to make a profit to use them. The solution is to categorise your software under a dual-licence; one for free open-source distribution, the other for proprietary commercial distribution. This model allows a business to take contributions made in the open source version, apply it to their for-cost version and sell it at retail price.


  1. Creative Commons,
  2. Creative Commons Licences,
  3. What is Copyleft?,