Part four of the Library Open Educational Resources Series on the difference between open access and free access. We recommend reading parts one, two and three of this series as well.

  1. Open Educational Resources part 1: Creative Commons Licenses
  2. Open Educational Resources part 2 : Finding OERs
  3. Open Educational Resources Part 3: Open Licensing Tools

Free access

Refers to any resources available on internet for free. Authors don’t give users permission to engage in “5R activities” and users need to search for and comply with the terms and conditions. Even with Public Domain, care needs to be taken as rights may vary by country/jurisdiction.

What are 5R activities?

Retain: Users have the right to make, archive, and “own” copies of the content;

Reuse: Content can be reused in its unaltered form;

Revise: Content can be adapted, adjusted, modified or altered’

Remix: The original or revised content can be combined with other content to create something new

Redistribute: Copies of the content can be shared with others in its original or revised form

Open access

We are referring to ‘open’ in the context of Open Educational Resources.

This refers to any resources available on the internet for free + permissions. Authors allow users to engage in “5R activities” through explicit legal permissions by means of six Creative Commons Licenses. In other words, Open Resources are openly licensed and offered under Creative Commons. To tell if a resource is an “Open” resource or not you should look at the footer of the website or page of the resource itself, and you will find creative commons or CC logo with circle around it that will tell you the license type and what you can or you can’t do with it. Adapted from Smartcopying.

Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0)

CC Logo

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons licenses

Creative Commons is a global non-profit organisation that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools (Six Creative Commons Licenses).

Creators mix and match these four elements to make six Creative Commons licences.

Creative Commons -Elements

  1. CC BY – Attribution – attribute the author
  2. CC NC  -Noncommercial – no commercial use
  3. CC ND – No Derivative Works – no modification, no changes
  4. CC ShareAlike – distribute any modified works on the same terms of the original work.


For more information, see Open Educational Resources Part 1: Creative Commons Licences   and  A Guide to Using and Applying Creative Commons Licenses

In conclusion

Free is not the same as open.  If you are not allowed to do one of these activities: retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute and you can only access the content for free, then that resource is free and not “Open” and you will still need to comply with the Terms and Conditions. You will mainly find Terms and Condition and/or “All rights reserved” on the landing page of free resources.

You can label a work open if you are allowed to access content for free and a Creative Commons license permits you to do one or more of these activities; retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute. The creative commons license will be displayed on the page of the resource itself or on the website where it is located.


Interested? Want to find out more? Want specific information? See the Library Page on OERs or Ask a Librarian for help, or leave us a comment here! 

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