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Open Licensing Resources for Foundations

What is an open licensing policy?
Why should foundations adopt an open licensing policy?
Why should foundations use Creative Commons licenses?
Which foundations have adopted an open licensing policy?
How do foundations explain open licensing to their staffs and grantees?
What are best practices for CC license marking and attribution?
Where can foundations find more information on open licensing policies?

What is an open licensing policy?

Open licensing policy is made possible through the foundation’s use of open licenses, whereby the acceptance of foundation funds requires grantees to share broadly the digital content developed with those funds under an open license, such as the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license. In addition to grant-funded content, foundations can adopt open licensing for the resources they produce themselves, such as website content, photographs, and publications. The adoption of Creative Commons licensing clarifies to the public how they may access, use, and adapt foundation-funded resources.

Why should foundations adopt an open licensing policy?

Most philanthropic foundations are tax-exempt, nonprofit institutions which exist exclusively to benefit the public. These foundation are involved in grant-making or direct activities designed to achieve charitable, scientific, educational, or similar purposes. Most try to use their resources in a way that will have the greatest impact on the problems they hope to solve.

One avenue to greater impact is requiring grantees to make any grant-funded works freely available for full re-use by others, so that those works can not only be distributed for education and research, but readily improved and built upon to create new works in a potentially unlimited trajectory. To take one example, foundations often fund research that is relevant to the welfare of the world’s poorest people – who often live in countries where their own researchers can’t afford to subscribe to the journals in which the work is published. Making articles on advances in medicine available through the internet can speed the transfer of knowledge to places where it is urgently needed – often by years. Licenses that give people the right to download, print and distribute those articles, and to translate or otherwise adapt them to local needs, multiply the already-great value of simple access.

There are multiple benefits to foundations in adopting an open licensing policy. For example, it increases the impact and reach of its grants because more people will be able to access foundation content and know how they can reuse it. It promotes innovative and entrepreneurial uses of openly licensed materials beyond the project / grant primary audience. It encourages translations of foundation-funded content. It contributes to the diverse, global public commons of reusable content. And it indicates a willingness collaborate with other organizations and individuals working on similar focus areas.

We believe that in almost all cases, the copyrightable works produced with grant funding, as well as works concerning the problems the foundation seeks to address that are created by expert staff or commissioned by the foundation from external experts, will have more impact on those problems if they are published under an open license.

Why should foundations use Creative Commons licenses?

The adoption of Creative Commons licensing clarifies to the public how they may access, use, and adapt foundation-funded resources. Creative Commons licenses are the global standard for open content licensing. There are over 1 billion CC licensed works available on the web. CC licenses have been adopted globally by governments and public sector bodies, scientific publishers, and cultural heritage institutions such as national museums and libraries. CC licenses are the legal standard for collaboration on the web.

Creative Commons licenses are free, public copyright licenses that grant permission to the public to reproduce, distribute, perform, display or adapt the licensed materials for any purpose, and typically contain a minimal set of conditions, such as the requirement that a user provide attribution to the author. Creative Commons licenses are built on top of and encourage respect for copyright and copyright holders. Open licensing policies allow creators to retain copyright, but at the same time permit foundations to condition funding such that the public will be provided with free, legal access to the content, research and data outputs of foundation grants.

Which foundations have adopted an open licensing policy?

We’ve been collecting information about the open licensing intellectual property policies in place within several philanthropic foundations. The following categories are included for each foundation, to the extent the information is available:

How can foundation explain open licensing to their staff and grantees?

Foundations that have adopted open licensing policies find it helpful to create documentation for their program officers that explains open licensing, how to communicate to grantees about the policy change, answer common questions, and provide other resources. Here are two actual guides, followed by a generic version that can be easily remixed for use by other foundations.

Hewlett Foundation Open Licensing Toolkit version (licensed CC BY)
Children’s Investment Fund Foundation Implementation Guide for Grantees (licensed CC BY)
Generic Open Licensing Toolkit (licensed CC BY)

What are best practices for CC license marking and attribution?

We’ve created several excellent examples of how to both mark you work with a Creative Commons license, and how to provide adequate attribution for works you use. This slide deck–originally created for another audience, provides more information about options for attaching licensing information to works.


Where can I find more information on foundation open licensing?