Last updated on 2024-04-09 | Edit this page

Licensing copyrighted work

Licences are contractual agreements between the copyright owner/s and user/s limiting how the work can be used.

Examples of licences are:

Creative Works where a copyright owner is unknown or untraceable are known as Orphan Works. Guidance on how to deal with this cases is available from the UK government.

Creative Commons Licenses (CC)

Creative Commons licenses are a standardised way to grant copyright permissions to creative work by individuals, organisations and institutions.

They help creators to retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work.

They are designed to be easy to use and understand by stating in simple terms what the user is allowed to do, and under which conditions.

They all have common features which serve as baseline. On top of which licensors can choose to grant additional permissions.

CC license
How To License poster © Creative Commons CC0

Why open cultural heritage data?

The Problem of the Yellow Milkmaid

‘The Milkmaid’, one of Johannes Vermeer’s most famous pieces, depicts a scene of a woman quietly pouring milk into a bowl. During a survey the Rijksmuseum discovered that there were over 10,000 copies of the image on the internet—mostly poor, yellowish reproductions. As a result of all of these low-quality copies on the web, according to the Rijksmuseum, “people simply didn’t believe the postcards in our museum shop were showing the original painting. This was the trigger for us to put high-resolution images of the original work with open metadata on the web ourselves. Opening up our data is our best defence against the ‘yellow Milkmaid’.”

Extract from Harry Verwayen, Martijn Arnoldus and Peter B. Kaufman (2011). The Problem of the Yellow Milkmaid: A Business Model Perspective on Open Metadata. (Acessed November 2023). URL:

Open Culture is an initative from Creative Commons.

It capitalises on the need to to empower creators anywhere in the world to discover, share, reuse and remix cultural heritage.

More information:

Using copyrighted work

To use a creative work protected by copyright it is generally advised:

  1. Once you have found a creative work you would like to use, you will need to determine the type of usage:
  • If it is not digitised, will you be producing a digital version?
  • Would you like to remix/change it? if so, Are you willing to release the resulting creative work for further remixes?
  • Would you be using it for commercial purposes?
  1. Understand the license which is currently offered with the creative work and its restrictions.
  2. If no license is available then find the owner of the copyright. Remember in many cases it might not be who holds the content.
  3. If you are using the creative work for educational purposes, confirm that your intended use falls within the exceptions to copyright.
  4. If you require a license, agree with the owner one. Favour the Creative Commons suite of licenses.
  5. Ensure you attribute the creative work when making use of it.