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About the Project Case Studies Workshops & Resources Metadata Interoperability Managing Rights Designing Content for Reuse


Defining Rights


There are three issues that fall under the general category of rights:

  • Copyright and Terms of Use
  • Attribution
  • Modifiability

These issues must be examined from the perspectives of at least three different roles:

  • An author or developer creating an original work (or the copyright owner)
  • A collection or repository acting as a content aggregator and distributor
  • An educator who wishes to modify and reuse existing content

There are other important roles as well, including those of a publisher, commercial distributor, institutional policy maker and learner, but these are not discussed here.

Rights Matrix

The following table summarizes the rights issues and perspectives discussed in this section.

Reusability and Rights: Issues and Perspectives

Copyright Attribution Modifiability
Author To aid reusability an author (or owner of the original copyright) must grant permission to copy, distribute and modify the original work. One way to do this is with a Creative Commons license. Authors can require attribution as part of a license. It also helps to include a statement showing how a work should be attributed. It aids reusability if authors make available an editable version or the source code to a resource and if they grant permission to make modifications.
Collection or Repository Reuse depends on the ability of collections to manage copyrights and licenses. For reusability, collections should include proper attribution in metadata and promote proper attribution. Collections should make editable versions or source code available. Technical requirements for editing a resource should be part of the metadata for a resource.
Reuser Reusers must pay attention to copyright and license restrictions. Reusers should properly cite and attribute work. Reusers must have the proper tools and must pay attention to license conditions when editing and reusing resources. They may also be creating derived works, so the reuser should be aware of the copyright implications.

Copyright and Terms of Use

In the United States and many other countries, a digital learning resource is copyrighted the moment that is created. At U.S. educational institutions, copyright may belong to the author, to the institution (or state if it is a state-run institution), or something between. Look under the e-Learning policies tab on Edutools Web site ( Edutools, 2004 ) to explore some of the variety.

In general, copyrighted material cannot be modified, used in a classroom, or incorporated into other learning content without permission of the copyright holder.

A major exception, in the United States, has been the "fair use" exemption to the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976. This allows the use of copyrighted works for teaching and scholarship, but its applicability depends on the character of the use, the nature of the work, the amount being used and the effect on the market for the work. At best, fair use applies only to small portions of a digital learning resource and does not generally apply to situations where an educator wishes to incorporate existing resources into their own content. For more information on fair use, see ( Stanford, 2004 ).

Another exemption, in the United States, is granted by the Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act, or TEACH Act, passed into U.S. law in 2002. This permits the Internet to be used as a medium for delivering copyrighted multimedia content. However, it applies only to instructor controlled classes at accredited educational institutions and has additional policy and protection requirements, see ( NCSU, 2004 ). The TEACH Act does not apply to self-study and overall has limited applicability.

Author Perspective : If the goal of an author is to enable reusability, it is a poor strategy to rely on exemptions to copyright laws. A better alternative is to explicitly attach rights and conditions to a resource that allow the desired type of reuse. This can be done using an appropriate ready-made Creative Commons license, such as one intended for Educators and Scholars ( Creative Commons, 2004 ) or by giving appropriate notice with the work. A typical Creative Commons license might allow copying and distribution provided proper attribution is given and that it is for non-commercial use.

Collection or Repository Perspective : To enable reuse, collections have to manage rights, including distributing rights if a resource resides in a collection as a file rather than metadata pointing to a file. It helps for collections to maintain rights metadata and to be able to search and display the rights associated with a resource so that reusers can decide what to reuse.

Reuser Perspective : The most interesting intellectual property rights issues arise when someone wants to modify and reuse a digital learning resource. Anyone in that position hopes that the work is licensed in a way that grants permission to modify and redistribute. If it is not, they must make judgments about fair use and possibly seek permission. If payments or conditions apply and the resource is being combined with other resources, there may well be unanswered questions concerning what rights and fees apply to the new aggregation and as to whether a new (or derived) work has been created. Derived works have their own copyright (and terms of use), of which reusers should be aware.


Attribution is the lifeblood of the academic and research world. Rewards in the academy depend on it and, more importantly, attribution is important for preserving the history and heritage of methods, ideas and procedures. Reuse with attribution is considered to be part of scholarship, whereas "using others ideas and words without clearly acknowledging the source of that information" ( Indiana, 2004 ) is the definition of plagiarism. The success of any attempt to promote reuse in the academy is predicated on the ability to ensure that proper attribution is given to the materials being reused. See ( Alberta, 2004 ) for references to plagiarism and “Cyber-plagiarism.”

Author Perspective : It is in the interests of most authors and institutions to ensure that they are properly attributed. It is recommended that attribution be made a condition of use through an appropriate notice or license. It is also recommended that a proper citation to the work be included in the work or in its metadata in order to help reusers.

Collection or Repository Perspective : Academic Web sites on plagiarism are often associated with libraries. There is an assumption of responsibility on the part of collections to proactively promote proper attribution through policies and education. At a minimum, collections need to provide proper attribution (through metadata) themselves.

Reuser Perspective : Plainly and simply, the burden of attribution lies with the reuser.


It was once the case that if a text document could be opened it could be edited. Now documents can be protected against modifications and formats such as Acrobat PDF™ make documents hard or impossible to edit. Web pages can be copied and edited if “view source” (available on most browsers) reveals the complete source of the page, but this may not work for pages that are produced by Web content management systems or using middleware such as Cold Fusion™, PHP, or Active Server Pages. Flash™ separates the source code from the compiled version that is delivered to a Web browser and readable using the Flash™ plug-in. Java™ and other programming languages also keep the source separate from the complied version. This leads to a situation where it may be easy to adopt resource “but impossible to adapt it."

Author Perspective : An author can choose to make source code available or not. If reusability is the goal, then the code should be made available. There are many open source distribution models, including ones for which a Creative Commons license can be obtained. For reusability, licenses that allow modification are essential.

Collection or Repository Perspective : Typically digital collections do not make source code available. To support reusability, collections need to enable retrieval of editable versions or of the source code, as is appropriate. This entails maintaining technical metadata that informs reusers of what tools are needed to modify a resource and managing rights to ensure that reusers have permission to modify resources they retrieve.

Reuser Perspective : An educator who wishes to modify existing content must make sure that it is in a modifiable format or that the source code is available and that he or she has the tools needed for editing and aggregating content.

Digital Rights Management

The entire field of managing rights in a digital networked environment is quite new. Digital rights management (which means managing rights by digital means) is currently associated with technologies that prevent unauthorized copying of entertainment media. However, the field is evolving in ways that could be more applicable to academic and research settings.

Specifications and standards are emerging for expressing rights independently of enforcing them ( Robson, 2003 ). Such standards are needed so that rights can be displayed by collections and repositories. Collaborations and demonstrator projects are exploring how rights can be associated with digital resources in ways that persist when the resources are moved from a repository to an authoring tool or course management environment ( Dalziel, 2002 ). As rights management evolves, it will become an important part of a reusability framework.