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Copyright and licensing in Higher Education

Guidance for copyright and licensing issues

Licencing and getting permission

The way in which you wish to use a piece of work may fall under fair dealing and the copyright exemptions or it may be out of copyright and in the public domain.  However, if it is not covered by these, you may still be able to use it:

  • It may be covered by a Creative Commons licence, it may be no rights reserved,  or it could be on an open government licence, such as those used by the UK Government.
  • You may be able to contact the rights holder to request permission (the licence) to use some or all of the work.

Creative Commons and open licences

Creative Commons is a licensing framework, where creators can choose to license their work in a way that permits others to re-use it without seeking permission or payment, but there are certain conditions that are applied to the re-use.  For example, the Attribution CC BY licence requires that any re-use must include an attribution to the copyright owner, while the CC BY-ND licence requires an attribution and requires that you not make any derivatives from the content. The different types of Creative Commons licences are listed below and detailed information on what each licence permits is on the Creative Commons website.

If you choose to licence your own work on a Creative Commons licence, you still own the copyright, but you are giving permission for others to use your work under certain conditions.

All over the internet, you will find work that has been uploaded with a Creative Commons licences.  Common places you'll find content with these licences include Flickr, YouTube, Wikimedia Commons, Vimeo, Wikipedia, Internet Archive, and MIT Open Courseware.

CC0 - No Rights Reserved

As well as Creative Commons, you may also encounter CC0 - No Rights Reserved. This is work where the creator or copyright holder has chosen to waive their rights, enabling others to freely use the content.  An example of this is MOMA.

Public Domain Mark

You may also encounter the Public Domain Mark. Many institutions, such as museums and libraries are knowledgeable about the copyright status of works within their collections, some of which may be old and no longer under copyright.  They can use the Pubic Domain Mark as a label to indicate that a work is no longer restricted by copyright and can be freely used by others. 

Open Licences

Some Governments also provide their content on an open licence. This usually means you can copy and adapt the content, providing you give a full attribution.  You will always need to check the specific licence terms. Examples include the UK Open Government Licence and the US Government Open License.

Getting permission

If your use of a piece of work does not fall under fair dealing and the copyright exemptions, and if it is not out of copyright, and if it is not offered on an open licence or Creative Commons, you will need to seek permission from the copyright owner. 

The Intellectual Property Office, publishes guidance on finding the copyright owner, seeking permission and licensing the work. Copyright User also provides practical advice on getting permission. The copyright holder may or may not request payment, and may or may not be willing to license the work, depending on the work you wish to use and your purpose.

When you contact the copyright holder, be clear:

  • what you will be using (amount and content)
  • the context their work will be used within
  • where you will be using the work (e.g. publicly online)
  • for what purpose (e.g. educational, commercial, personal)
  • how they will be attributed

If you are granted permission (either with or without payment) make sure you retain information regarding the permission that has been granted.

Orphan works

An orphan work is a one where you have been unable to locate the copyright owner following a search process demonstrating due diligence.

You can find out more about the due diligence process for different types of works (e.g. literary, sound, film) from the Intellectual Property Office at: Orphan works diligent search guidance for applicants.

Following a due diligence search process, if you have been unable to locate the copyright owner, you can apply for an orphan works licence.


This information is for general guidance and background information only and does not constitute legal advice. The University of Northampton does not accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage incurred as a result of relying on information contained on this website. 


Much of this content has been adapted and reproduced from the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) under the Open Government Licence v.3.0. Where content has been derived in this manner, it has been attributed as follows:

© Crown Copyright.

IPO Copyright information is licensed under the Open Government Licence 3.0. open government licence logo