While both the public domain and open licence (Creative Commons) permit free access to materials, each's scope and nature are different. Works in the public domain do not/no longer belong to anybody. Most material enters the public domain when copyright expires or when creators purposely waive their copyright ownership, dedicating their work to the public domain via a Creative Commons ‘zero’ licence (CC0). In this case, the public has a right to reproduce and distribute the work as they wish without acknowledging the original author. This is the purest form of open access as no one person owns the work. This is not common in educational practice.
In contrast, an open licence occurs where the author of a work retains ownership and copyright but explicitly grants specific permissions concerning reproduction and distribution by the public. They can also restrict commercial activity and can prevent adaptation if required. Adopting this type of licence is becoming increasingly prevalent in educational institutions throughout North America and Canada and is commonly referred to as an OER.
In summary, an open licence recognises and protects ownership of the intellectual property while allowing others to use the work in a timely and efficient manner. The following table illustrates the differences between public domain, open licence and all rights reserved copyright:
Source: (Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges, 2021)
How open OER are, depends on how they are licenced for use. The most common form of open licence is a Creative Commons licence. Creative Commons licences are a way to give the public permission to use creative work in a manner that protects intellectual property under copyright law (Creative Commons, 2019).