Earlier in the section on open software, we talked about the difference between free and open source software, which centre on differences in their licensing. A license is, “official permission or permit to do, use, or own something (as well as the document of that permission or permit)”. Every piece of software comes with a license; you have undoubtedly clicked through hundreds of end-user license agreements (EULAs) when installing software on your computer or phone, likely without reading any of them (or trying and quickly being vanquished by the legalese).

Copyright is one type of licensing. Copyright is a very specific legal term; in Canada, it is defined as, “…the exclusive legal right to produce, reproduce, publish or perform an original literary, artistic, dramatic or musical work. The creator is usually the copyright owner. However, an employer—for example, a film studio—may have copyright in works created by employees unless there is an agreement in place stating otherwise.” Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO); retrieved June 15, 2020. CIPO further notes that, “When you own the copyright in a work, you control how it is used in order to protect its value. Others who want to use the work have to buy or otherwise get your permission.” In other words, the central purpose of copyright is to permit certain people (typically creators) to profit from their work, while preventing other people from doing so without the copyright holder’s permission. Copyright can be transferred, and it is common for creators such as writers, musicians, and artists, to assign copyright over their works to a publisher. They do this because the publisher is expected to be able to generate more profit from the work than the creator could on their own.

The open movement embodies, essentially, the opposite spirit from copyright. The open movement generally aims to allow for, encourage, and protect the ability to redistribute, and even modify, works without having to seek a license from the creator, and without having to pay the creator for the use or redistribution of their work. Permissive open licenses even allow others to re-use or modify a work for commercial purposes — in other words, they can profit from the creation of another without the creator sharing in the profits. The motivation for using an open license ranges from a sense of goodwill towards others and the sharing economy, to anticapitalist views. However, many for-profit organizations actively support the development and maintenance of open source software, while finding other ways to generate revenue.

Software licenses are a distinct category of license due to the intrinsic properties of software. Unlike many types of copyright-able work, like writing, visual art, or music, software typically has a function and can serve as a tool either for doing work, or creating new software for specific purposes. Thus software licenses explicitly address issues such as conditions for reproduction and modification (including copyleft permissions that allow for these things, in stark contrast to the goals of copyright), and the hardware it can be run on (whether that’s saying commercial software you purchased can only be installed on a single computer or phone, or tivoization whereby software will only run on devices licensed to do so).

Outside of software, licensing for works — including written and artistic works — includes copyright but also a variety of “open” licenses that vary along lines similar to software licenses. Creative Commons, “is a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a globally-accessible public commons of knowledge and culture. We make it easier for people to share their creative and academic work, as well as to access and build upon the work of others. By helping people and organizations share knowledge and creativity, we aim to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world.” [, retrieved June 15, 2020]. Creative Commons (CC) defines a set of open publishing licenses designed to support these aims. CC licenses define:

  • whether in reuse, credit should be given to the original author;

  • whether adaptations (modifications) are permitted or only the original, unmodified work can be redistributed;

  • whether adaptations must be shared under the same terms;

  • whether commercial reuse is permitted;

CC licensing provides a standard, granular, and transparent way of licensing works. Moreover, “behind the scenes”, if one uses a CC license the legal terms are fully defined in legal terms (all that stuff you never read, but is actually important), meaning individual creators can use these license with confidence that they are solid and industry-standard.