Open licensing: a digital heritage leadership briefing

Open licensing: a digital heritage leadership briefing

We commissioned Dr Andrea Wallace and Michael Weinberg from The GLAM-E Lab to produce a snapshot on open licensing across the UK heritage sector – its benefits, opportunities and risks.

Executive summary

This briefing was commissioned by The National Lottery Heritage Fund (the Heritage Fund) to provide decision makers with a snapshot of open licensing across the UK heritage sector. Please note that this guidance does not constitute legal advice.

  • Open licences are licences that provide upfront legal permissions for the public to use, distribute and build upon works protected by copyright for any purpose, and without having to seek individual permission from the rights holder. Open licences do not negate copyright or other laws. People must seek permission for any uses not within the licence’s terms.
  • Heritage organisations around the world make use of open licences and have adopted open licensing policies. Many funders – including the Heritage Fund – require project materials and resources created as a condition of funding to be shared under an open licence.
  • In common with many countries around the world, the UK Government promotes the use of open licences and open data.
  • Open licensing can be used to increase your organisation’s reach, enhance reputation and ensure attribution, reduce costs through collaboration and development, and facilitate delivery of strategic aims and missions.
  • Open licensing enables the UK heritage sector to contribute to a more inclusive, sustainable and vibrant cultural landscape in the UK and globally. In addition to promoting inclusion and access, open licensing boosts reuse of digitised heritage in education, sustainable tourism, the creative sectors and environmental research. This helps the UK heritage sector also meet the Heritage Fund’s investment principles.
  • Globally, more than 1,600 heritage organisations have published more than 95 million digital collections through open licensing, including over 100 UK heritage organisations. Countless organisations have released open datasets, software, code and other materials for any reuse purpose.
  • Open licensing can help heritage organisations to develop long-term policies and programming that builds capacity, skills and expertise in heritage, and contribute to the UK’s thriving communities and creative economies, in particular SMEs.
  • Heritage organisations with open licensing policies have seen benefits including increased engagement, attendance, community support, new income from open access business models, and new ways of working that support mission-driven activities. Many report savings in the long term when accounting for the labour, workflows and inefficiencies required to administer services and fulfil use requests.
  • Open licensing can bring wider economic benefits by increased efficiency from more available and accessible materials, and new innovations from the ability to bring together information, data and insights in new ways.


The UK’s heritage sector plays a fundamental role in knowledge equity, creativity, and culture, and in growing the economy and protecting the environment. Heritage organisations are trusted stewards of important records, natural specimens, artistic creations, memories and stories while also pursuing new research and discoveries.

Open licensing allows heritage organisations to fulfil those roles by making the UK’s rich natural and cultural heritage more accessible and available. When materials are openly licensed, anyone can use them for any legal purpose without permission. The National Lottery Heritage Fund, and many other funding organisations, use open licences to release data, collections and other materials for public reuse, unless there is a specific (legal, technical or ethical) reason not to.

This briefing helps heritage organisations understand the ways that open licensing will work for their organisation and mission-driven activities by covering:

  • what open licensing is and when it can be used
  • the benefits, opportunities and risks of open licensing
  • how open licensing supports the digital transformation of the heritage sector
  • strategic areas of investment and focus in open licensing
  • open licensing currently in use across the UK heritage sector and internationally
  • model policies, supporting resources and other tools for robust open policies

What is copyright and why does it matter for heritage organisations?

Copyright is an intellectual property right that regulates the use of creative materials including literary and artistic works, sound recordings, broadcasts, research datasets and computer programs.

  • The person who owns the copyright can allow, condition or prohibit use of the creative materials.
  • Copyright lasts a long time. Depending on the type of materials, copyright can last for the lifetime of the creator or producer plus seventy years.
  • Materials are deemed in the ‘public domain’ when copyright does not apply or has expired. Materials in the public domain can be used freely by anyone for any purpose without permission.

What does this mean in practice?

  • Creative works by persons who died during or after 1954 are protected by copyright and require permission from the rights holder to digitise.
  • Creative works by persons who died before 1954, and works which are not eligible for protection, like natural specimens, are in the public domain. Permission is not required to digitise and share these objects.
  • An organisation does receive a new copyright for creative materials produced during research and other mission-driven activities.
  • An organisation does not receive a new copyright when it digitises an object.

What are open licences?

A licence sets out the permissions and responsibilities on the reuse of materials that are protected by copyright. While licences can be negotiated between the copyright owner and a person seeking reuse, standardised open licences provide up-front permissions on reuse to the public at large. Open licences allow for any type of reuse, including commercial use and modification.

The Open Definition helps establish a common understanding of what ‘open’ really means:

  • Open means anyone can freely access, use, modify and share for any purpose (subject, at most, to requirements that preserve provenance and openness).

What open licences do heritage organisations use?

Many heritage organisations use Creative Commons (CC) licences and tools. CC licences have been tested and are recognised internationally.

Creative Commons is an organisation that provides open licences and tools to publish creative and public domain content. CC licences and tools are available in more than 40 languages and are machine readable and searchable online. Each licence and tool has a corresponding set of icons, making it easy to identify them at a glance. The icons indicate that the licence is a CC licence and summarise the permissions that it grants.

For open licensing, these include: 

  • Public Domain Mark or PDM: Communicates the work is free of all known restrictions under copyright law and related rights.
  • Zero or CC0: Clarifies the work is public domain and the creator has waived all rights worldwide under copyright law and related rights.
  • Attribution (BY) or CC BY: Credit must be given to the creator.
  • Attribution (BY) ShareAlike (SA) or CC BY-SA: Credit must be given to the creator and the materials must be shared under the same terms.

As an example of these licences in action, this Briefing is shared under a CC BY 4.0 licence, in line with The Heritage Fund’s policy. You can see both the licence icon and our attribution statement on the last page of this Briefing.

In the UK, the UK Government Licensing Framework designed by The National Archives can be used to openly licence public sector information and government-produced works which are protected by Crown Copyright. Similar to CC BY, the Open Government Licence (OGL) requires credit to be given to the creator.

Once these licences or tools have been applied to the work, the works can immediately be used in compliance with the terms. 

Tips for open licensing: new programming and mission driven activities

The National Gallery of Denmark or Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK) has applied CC0 to images since 2016. The museum is also an innovator in developing new programmes and outreach activities on open licensing. The SMK Open project mission states ‘digitising and making the collection universally accessible is key to fulfilling our strategy.’ This includes:

  • SMK Connect, a user-friendly and easily accessible education platform for schools all over Denmark to help students become critical, creative and co-creative.
  • Strategies for multi-platform publishing, to reach a wider range of audiences, researchers, students, school children, culture fans, tourists, creatives and citizen scientists.
  • New creations include music, award winning films, visuals on gaming platforms, Instagram filters and poetry, further detailed on the SMK Open Medium page.

Do funders require open licensing?

Many funders, governments and publishing platforms have adopted open licensing requirements that centre values promoting public access and reuse.

  • The European Commission requires open access to research articles and data and publishes their own materials using CC0 and CC BY.
  • The UKRI requires use of CC BY or the OGL.
  • Wellcome Trust requires CC BY for all funded research and prohibits projects from using funds to pay for image licensing fees.
  • Wikimedia platforms require content to be marked as PDM, CC0, CC BY or CC BY-SA, with a special requirement of CC0 for all data contributed to WikiData. 

Tips for open licensing: Start small and pilot the work

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) currently uses free platforms like Wikimedia Commons and Sketchfab to publish CC0 digital collections. To model the open access policy, RAMM initially uploaded just 63 artworks to Wikimedia Commons of historical places around Exeter. Since their release in January 2023, these 63 images have received over 6.16 million views. At least 41 have been added to 65 different Wikipedia articles in seven different languages. They have also been used by local tour guides, in study guides and history websites for children. This allowed RAMM to design and test new workflows and prepare staff for the rollout of a formal open access policy in February 2024

Which open licenses does The National Lottery Heritage Fund use?

The National Lottery Heritage Fund supports access to the rich heritage in the UK and its commitment to sector-wide digital transformation through an open licensing requirement as a condition of funding:

  • Open licences. Projects apply CC BY 4.0 or an equivalent licence to original content created during the course of the project, such as infographics or articles. This allows everyone to share and adapt the materials for any purpose, even commercially. Users must attribute the source and indicate whether any changes have been made.
  • Public domain tools. Projects apply the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication tool to digitisations of public domain works, code and metadata created during the course of the project, like software code or technical data. This tells everyone the works are in the public domain and any rights have been waived.  Users can copy, modify, distribute, and perform the work, even commercially, without permission.

Tips for open licensing: Track and celebrate your impact

For the Cleveland Museum of Art, releasing 2D and 3D collections and data as CC0 in high resolution has led to:

  • Curators forging new connections with scholars, dozens of new partnerships, recognition through many awards, and new staff skills, capacity and innovations, including new artworks and features in popular tv series.
  • Increased updates to attribution, provenance and collections information and new digital spaces for engagement with collections and data onsite, including visitors who create their own 3D scans of public domain collections and contribute them to the digital collections.
  • A virtual dashboard that shows impact in real time, including more than 6 million views on the website, 47 million API downloads and 324 million views across Wikimedia platforms.

What can open licences be applied to?

Attaching an open licence is as straightforward as communicating or displaying the licence alongside the materials it applies to.

  • Open licences that require attribution (eg: CC BY) are appropriate for many materials such as: research data, datasets, images, 3D models, metadata, software, code, text, websites, apps, research publications, educational materials, exhibition catalogues, reports, or sound and video recordings.
  • Open licences that indicate the public domain status of a work (Public Domain Mark or CC0) are appropriate for materials that are not protected by copyright such as a faithful photographic reproduction of an out-of-copyright painting.
  • Open licences should not be applied to materials that raise: ethical issues, cultural sensitivities, sensitive data concerns (eg: health or personal data), or to in-copyright materials without the permission of the rights holder.

Tips for open licensing: tell the public how you would like to be credited

  • Europeana’s Public Domain Usage Guidelines encourage users to give credit where credit is due, show respect for the original work and creator, along with other good practice tips on use of public domain materials.
  • Creative Commons recommends a simple framework to support behavioural change and encourage positive outcomes by nudging organisations to reference organisations when using public domain materials.

The benefits of open licensing

When approached strategically, open licensing improves key areas of work within your organisation and across the heritage sector. For example, open licensing:

  • Supports your organisation’s mission. Heritage organisations help people and society understand the world and advance our knowledge. Making it easy for anyone, including other heritage organisations, to engage with your materials is a cornerstone of that mission-led work.
  • Connects your organisation with more communities. It can be hard to understand who is not engaging with your materials until you remove the barriers for doing so. Open licensing allows you to reach communities you previously have been unable to reach and to discover new communities you did not realise were eager to explore and use your collections.
  • Supports preservation. Openly-licensed, high-quality research, collections and other materials can be distributed, archived, and accessed from multiple sites. This increases their preservation resiliency. Materials can be secured more cost effectively for smaller organisations and can benefit from the maintenance and care of open communities and volunteers.
  • Contributes to the economy. Open licensing enables innovation in AI, machine learning, computer vision and computational research, and provides important materials to stimulate the creative industries.
  • Raises your organisation’s profile. Open licensing allows your research, collections or other materials to reach audiences on a wide range of platforms, from Wikipedia to television and movies, and to cutting-edge web and phone applications. Many organisations see large increases in web traffic to their websites and interactions on social media, citations and direct inquiries after deploying open licensing.
  • Can drive new revenue and business models. Open licensing has proven to be a source of new revenue for many organisations, including partnerships to digitise additional works, brand licensing, and consultations about newly-prominent materials.
  • Can create cost savings and help reprioritise your resources in support of organisational goals. Limiting access to materials is expensive. The costs of operating a licensing programme often exceed associated revenues when accounting for the staffing, workflows, and inefficiencies required to administer services and fulfil requests. The digital infrastructures required to gate and toll access can be much more expensive than making those materials freely available for self-service delivery.
  • Creates new ways of working. By removing barriers and friction around use, open licensing greatly increases the velocity of collaboration. This opens the door to entirely new ways of working, both within your organisation and with external partners.
  • Supports digital literacy. Your openly licensed materials act as new entry points for individuals to build their digital literacy, including individuals in your organisation. They can explore your materials and connect them with other openly licensed materials to better understand their digital capabilities, and to use them as building blocks for new projects.

Focus on: open licensing uptake in UK heritage

  • In the UK, around 100 heritage organisations have released digital collections under open licences and public domain tools. This accounts for 6% of open licensing activity in the global open GLAM sector
  • UK open GLAM organisations range from museums and libraries, to research institutions and universities, to castles and visitor attractions, to local councils and government archives, to botanical gardens and nature preserves
  • Top UK contributors are the Natural History Museum with over 8 million images (CC BY) and British Library with over 1 million images (Public Domain Mark)
  • Organisations with fully open policies include: Aberdeen Archives, Art Gallery & Museums; Birmingham Museums Trust; National Library of Wales; Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, Brighton & Hove; Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery; Wellcome Collection and York Museums Trust

Active movements in open licensing

Open licensing builds on the collective work of other open movements, helping your organisation to learn from their management and success:

  • Open access ensures publications and other content are available to everyone for new learning and insights.
  • Open data shares information about ourselves, our world, and our environment.
  • Open Educational Resources (OER) creates the textbooks, websites, videos, and other resources for teaching and learning.
  • Open knowledge eases access to research, information, and understanding.
  • Open GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) expands access to heritage collections by making them freely available for all reuse purposes.
  • Open science shares the research that informs, and the conclusions that drive key scientific insights.
  • Open source collaboratively develops the software and hardware that support our modern world.

Focus on: releasing control creates new opportunities

CC0 allow others to use your organisation’s materials in surprising and unforeseeable ways:

  • Using CC0 data from Historic England’s National Heritage List and Wikidata, the Cast in Stone project at the University of Exeter and Université Paris 8 built a database that maps statues and monuments related to the colonial histories of Britain and France.
  • A University of Edinburgh project combined a 2003 Survey of Scottish Witchcraft (1563-1736) dataset with data from archives, like historical maps and surveys, and Wikidata to cross-reference the residences of almost 4,000 people accused of witchcraft with their modern-day locations.
  • The Imperial War Museum shared metadata as CC0 and uploaded it to Wikidata, which was used with other open datasets by Data Developer James Morley to create the website A Street Near You. Users can enter a postcode or address to locate people in their community who served and died in the First World War. The project went viral, reaching more than 240,000 people in just three days. 

From open licensing to open policies and programming

Open licensing is fundamental to the success of open policies and programming because it provides the legal framework that allows others to use your materials and the UK’s heritage collections. Open licensing can align your organisation’s policies with the requirements of many funders and establish standardised workflows for heritage management across your organisation.

Your organisation can rely on existing, standard licences in your open policy:

  • Use the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication for digital reproductions of public domain works, such as photographs and scans. Creative Commons recommends CC0 as the most appropriate tool for these images. While UK law does not grant a new copyright, CC0 reassures users in other jurisdictions that the images can be freely used without risk of infringement.
  • Use the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication for metadata and code created during the digitization process. This facilitates the use of this information for a wide range of purposes.
  • Use the CC BY 4.0 (Attribution) Licence for new original content created during the course of the project such as infographics or articles. This allows everyone to share and adapt the materials for any purpose, even commercially, while giving credit to your organisation.

Adopting a standard, effective open licensing structure creates a future-proof policy for your organisation. This structure will reduce the amount of legacy data, rights and licensing services you are required to maintain, reducing the resources required to update and upgrade systems. 

Organisations should not use contract law to replicate the permission-based control and fee models of copyright licensing services. An example includes restricting the use of open and public domain materials with terms and conditions that require users to pay fees based on the reuse purpose. Such terms run counter to the goals of open movements and are prohibited by the Heritage Fund’s policy.

Building organisational sustainability and resilience through open programming

Open licensing programmes can support organisational sustainability by:

  • reducing legal costs and reliance on external advice
  • reducing administration costs related to licensing services
  • reducing long-term costs related to legacy data and policy updates
  • helping organisations support inclusion, access and participation through your digital strategy and public mission
  • helping organisations gain relevance as materials are circulated and reused online
  • expanding user bases and generating new knowledge around materials
  • attracting more diverse income sources through open access and new business models

Legal and ethical limits to open licensing

While open policies can be powerful tools to achieve many of your organisation’s goals, not all works are suitable for open licensing. Certain rights may arise in materials and merit additional consideration. While these rights are not incompatible with open licensing, all rights holders must give permission to apply an open licence to materials.

  • Performers' rights can arise in films or sound recordings of a person's speech or movement and initially belong to the person featured.
  • Database rights are protected under copyright and related rights and initially belong to the maker or producer of the materials.
  • Contractual rights in agreements among creators, producers, employers and distributors can further limit the reuse of materials. Contributors or donors may also limit reuse through contracts.
  • Privacy and data rights can arise in materials that identify a living person and will belong to the persons who are identifiable.

Public domain works in your collection will often, although not always, lack these types of rights because they typically expire before or with the copyright protection. 

Open licences cannot be retracted once they have been applied to a work. However, it is possible to remove data from your public platforms, and sometimes possible to update data held elsewhere. Developing a strategy to remove or correct data when creating your open access program will help you accommodate emerging or evolving legal, technical, and ethical concerns. 

Exceptions to open licensing

Even when materials are in the public domain, some tend to raise other types of concerns such as:

  • images of, or contributions by, children, young people, and other vulnerable populations
  • endangered species or migration data that could expose those species to increased interference from humans
  • ancestral remains, spiritual works, or funerary objects
  • artefacts, knowledge or memories of cultural significance to communities of origin
  • materials with sensitive information or personal data

As such, it is important to work with your staff to identify materials that due to their status and sensitivity are not suitable for open licences.

Open licensing and responsible stewardship

Open licensing can help you think critically about what data, collections and images are appropriate for access or reuse. The Open Data Institute’s report on responsible data stewardship sets out legal and ethical principles to follow in respecting privacy, ensuring security and transparency, considering societal impact, and upholding integrity while promoting trust and accountability in data practices. 

Notices with additional information about objects are powerful, inclusive complements to your open policy. They can be used to provide cultural and relevant contextual insights about the people, knowledge, practices, and objects represented in the collection, as well as the existence of – and reasons for – errors and inaccuracies. Notices can open up communications and serve as invitations to communities of origin to contact your organisation to become more involved in your collections. They can be included as metadata in your open records, and displayed alongside objects in your open collection. If you create your own notices, the notices themselves can be openly licensed.

International examples of organisations benefiting from Open Licensing

Heritage organisations around the world have published their materials using open licences and public domain tools, enabling more people’s heritage to be recognised. Since their launch in 2001, Creative Commons tools and other open licences have led to:

  • more than 1,600 heritage organisations from 55 countries using open licences and public domain tools to publish their digital collections and other heritage materials
  • more than 95 million digital objects freely available for any reuse purpose, including commercial use

Impacts on heritage management and operations

Organisations and staff share experiences of open licensing leading to:

Re-engaging audiences and sparking new interest

The Birmingham Museums Trust estimated £100,000 worth of press coverage for the organisation after going open. Birmingham Museums also collaborated with Black Hole Club and Vivid Projects on the project ‘Cut, Copy Remix’ to inspire artists to make new works using the collection. In another collaboration, Birmingham artist Coldwar Steve created a series of new works which were sold as 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles. He donated profits from sales of posters in the gift shop to the museum and published the new artworks as CC0.

Commitments to inclusion and access

Removing barriers to inclusion, access and participation means that everyone has opportunities to learn and explore heritage and also to better recognise and celebrate the contributions of marginalised or under-served groups in heritage and history. The Museum of Modern Art and Tate use CC BY-SA Wikipedia biographies to improve the representation of artists on their websites, particularly for artists who are under-represented and deserve more authoritative information. Staff also contribute to Wikipedia’s biographies to improve their accuracy and the reachability of their work. 

NASA uses their images, data and sound materials to create materials for persons who are blind or have partial vision using a combination of Braille, tactile techniques, and descriptions in both large format text and audio formats, sonifications, and 3D prints and other kits of cosmic objects.

Benefits to staff, users and researchers

At Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, staff were released from answering 14,000 image requests and 28,000 emails, allowing them to focus on engaging with patrons, exploring comments and stories about how the collection is being used. Users and researchers also benefit from the time and money saved by free and self-service image delivery.

Open funds more open collections

The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields’ existing open collection has driven requests for digitising other works. They charge a small service fee for digitising new images, resulting in more works being digitised and being available and creatively used by the public, driving yet more interest in further digitisation. The National Library of Wales reported generating more funding revenue through the open licensing policy than was previously generated through image licensing services.

Greater adaptability in the digital era

During the pandemic lockdown, the #GettyMuseumChallenge using the Getty Museum’s CC0 open content spread rapidly, with hundreds of thousands of staged re-creations of artworks submitted by people all over the world. From these, the museum published a book called ‘Off the Walls’ featuring 246 social media re-creations, including re-creations of works held by other heritage organisations, with profits donated to a charity for artists with financial emergencies during the pandemic.

Goodwill and recognition, locally and globally

Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand uses an image download form to collect reuse and impact stories from around the world. Collections have inspired new tattoo designs, knitting patterns, research on endangered animals, lecturing and other teaching materials and commercial products. The dataset of stories is available CC BY on GitHub.

Creative ways of protecting and promoting heritage

Openly licensing materials means that heritage can be shared and understood in unexpected, creative ways:

Use in popular culture and television series

The Art Institute of Chicago’s collections appeared on the walls of scenes in the HBO series The Gilded Age and Netflix series Bridgerton.The Nationalmuseum Sweden learned images were being used for wall decorations by Ikea through Instagram. IKEA had replied to a follower’s request for the source of the artworks, tagging the museum and pointing followers to the institution’s open collections.

New audience interest through external platforms

Because openly-licensed collections and data can be uploaded and connected to other information through platforms like Wikimedia Commons, WikiData and Wikipedia, organisations see greater attention to collections and additional interest and engagement with their contexts and collections. Wikipedia pageviews with images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art increased from four million to 17 million views per month in just two years. Sustainable data integration with other websites, like Google Arts & Culture, also resulted in a 300% increase in collections engagement.

New ways of learning

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collaborated with students at The Parsons School of Design on using the museum’s API and CC0 collections data to make new data visualisations on topics like gender representation and the history of collecting practices.

New relevance through discoverability online

The University of Exeter Library’s Special Collections used Wikimedia Commons to publish CC0 digitisations of the 1578 Saxton Atlas of England and Wales, which now rank as the highest resolution images made available around the world, receiving almost 1 million views in less than a year.

Encouraging donations

After releasing images of the Scopes Trial, the Smithsonian Institution Archives received a new donation of 10 more rare photographic images. The donor had found the openly licensed images and ‘appreciate[d] the way the photos the Smithsonian has are available for all to see.’

Brand licensing opportunities

The Rijksmuseum’s open licensing program drew the attention of Heineken, Albert Heijn and Playmobile, creating partnerships related to food and product packaging, toys and more. 

Digital innovations, creations and transformation of the cultural sector

Open licensing supports the UK economy, educational and cultural industries by providing new raw materials for:

Creative and technological innovation

University College London indexed a collection of 60,000 public domain digitised books from the British Library into its high-performance computing facilities, working with humanities researchers to turn their research questions into computational analysis while improving the development and delivery of these types of computing applications to the cultural sector. Each research scenario produced outputs of derived data, queries, documentation, and data visualisations, all of which were made available as CC BY workflow packages.

Increased attention from citizen scientists

Citizen scientists like Siobhan Leachman rely on open data datasets and repositories like the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Bionomia,Tropicos, the International Plant Names Index and Wikidata to connect and highlight women’s contributions to science and even relink their identities after name changes from marriage.

Increased data exploration and enrichment through crowdsourcing

The British Library has used crowdsourcing in 175 projects to make digitised historical playbills more discoverable, collect local sounds and accents around Britain, georeference historical maps, and match card catalogue records in Urdu and Chinese to digital catalogue records.

New connections with other collections

The Scottish Wildlife Trust contributes to the National Biodiversity Network’s Atlas Scotland, which collates biodiversity data from many sources and makes it accessible as CC0 and CC BY. The Trust also shares materials under CC BY-SA on a dedicated MediaWiki page so more people can collaborate and contribute to tackling climate change and biodiversity loss.

Fuelling remix culture by new creators

Open licensing means creators from all over the world can remix and use heritage materials for new creative works:

  • The Rijksmuseum launched the Rijksstudio Award in 2013 to showcase creative reuses inspired by the collection, like makeup pallets, lighting fixtures, pop-up books, dishware and fashion. The competition has grown each year with 892 entries in 2015, and more than 2,600 entries in both 2017 and 2020.
  • The National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) collaborated with Shapeways to host a jewellery competition inspired by six works in the collection. They received over 250 entries, with the top five designs featured at the museum and sold in the gift shop.
  • Artist Lauren Carson designed an Instagram filter based on Severin Roesen’s Still Life: Flowers and Fruit, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As Carson said, “you might not live in a major metropolitan area, you might not be able to afford a trip to a museum, you might not have time for a visit, but there is this enormous collection at your fingertips that you can pull from, be inspired by, work with, all for free online.”

New learning through Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open licensing supports use for Open Educational Resources (OER) by providing high-quality materials for educators to use and foster education:

  • Europeana and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) create various OER as part of their missions. Examples include colouring books released by Europeana and primary source collections for educational reuse and teaching released by DPLA.
  • Memoria Chilena created a website called Chile para Niños to feature collections for children and invite them to explore in ways that are meaningful to them.
  • Wikimedia Argentina, the UNESCO Associated Schools Network, and the Comisión Nacional Argentina de Cooperación con la Unesco created an educational resource called El Archivo en el Aula (‘The Archive in the Classroom’) using primary sources from various cultural institutions.
  • The UK’s Royal Society publishes lectures, events, and other videos CC BY on its YouTube Channel, bringing the UK’s most cutting edge research to the public in a whole new way. 

Model policies

While many organisations make their open access policy their own, these policies need not be written from scratch. There are many examples of open access policies that can serve as robust starting points for your own.

  • Aberdeen Archives, Gallery & Museums publishes images of the collection using CC0 and uses a simple webpage to highlight Open Access Images within the Maritime History collection, as well as a dedicated page on Wikimedia Commons.
  • The Auckland Museum’s Image Orders and Cultural Permissions policy embeds Māori and Moana Pacific values into the guiding frameworks for all collections, digitisation and rights management.
  • The GLAM-E Lab publishes two model policies as CC0 for organisations to adapt when designing their own: an Internal Open Access Policy and an External Open Access Policy.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access Policy is accompanied by strong digital programming that brings greater attention to the CC0 collections and benefits of open licensing, as well as Image and Data Resources and Frequently Asked Questions pages.
  • The National Library of Scotland uses a Copyright policy, Collection Development Policy, and Metadata and Digital Content Licensing Policy to disclose how datasets, metadata, code, images and other content are published under open licences and public domain tools, many of which can be found in the Digital Gallery.
  • As part of their conservation strategy, Natural England aligns its open data approach to Defra’s Open Data Strategy to promote a healthy natural environment on land and sea by openly licensing all data on the Open Data Geoportal using the OGL.
  • The Natural History Museum’s Data Portal provides access to almost 6 million CC BY records of the museum’s 80 million specimens, with the museum also signing the International Science Council’s Open Data Accord.
  • Oak National Academy has published an Open Innovation policy to accompany its Terms and Conditions, showcasing the organisation’s open licensing commitment and use of the OGL for lesson content published after September 2022.
  • The Qatar Digital Library’s Copyright & Ethical Terms of Reuse policy acknowledges that some cultural materials in the public domain should not be altered or used in ways that can be harmful to the communities of origin and recognises broader rights and interests that should apply to these materials.
  • The Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s Open Access Strategy sets out the strategy used by the museum to release images CC0 and the various platforms where openly licensed content can be found, including Wikimedia Commons.
  • The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s policy on Biodiversity Data Access provides access to data about species and habitats in line with Scotland’s Strategic Framework for Biodiversity, while placing limits on access to sensitive data.
  • The Smithsonian Institution created an Open Access FAQ to introduce their use of CC0, with an Open Access page to collect information about the collection, remixes and user highlights.
  • The Statens Museum for Kunst’s About page for SMK Open serves as a clearly written guide to the museum’s CC0 online collections and award-winning programme.
  • The Wellcome Collection’s policies and plans cover topics from access to research development and digital preservation, with a separate page dedicated to the collections online.
  • York Museums Trust uses a Collections Image Policy with screenshots and other helpful details to introduce users to the thousands of CC0 and CC BY-SA images available for download. 

Additional resources

The National Lottery Heritage Fund has commissioned other helpful resources on open licencing, policies and programming, such as:

CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance

The CARE Principles complement the well-known FAIR Data Principles by incorporating Indigenous Peoples’ rights and interests within the open data movement and more ethical sharing of data, as well as recognising data sovereignty and control.

Creative Commons Certificate

Creative Commons has a useful Frequently Asked Questions resource to support open licensing. CC also offers certificate programmes for Educators and Librarians as well as Open Culture and Open GLAM.

Copyright User is an online resource to make UK copyright law more accessible to anyone who encounters copyright protected works. It includes guidance on how to understand, licence and respect the rights recognised by UK copyright law.

Copyright Cortex

The Copyright Cortex is an online resource dedicated to copyright law and digital heritage. The website hosts an ongoing catalogue of research, resources and evidence, and open access publications on UK copyright law and heritage management called Copyright 101. is an online resource for anyone from beginner to expert level on how to create, manage and release a 3D open access programme.

Open GLAM Survey

The ‘Rights Policy or Terms of Use’ column in the Open GLAM Survey contains more examples of website terms in use by heritage organisations around the world.

OpenGLAM Medium

The OpenGLAM Medium has many articles on how to implement open licensing, like this series by Anne Young (Director of Legal Affairs & Intellectual Property at Newfields). Articles are published CC BY and CC0, which means they can be translated into other languages for greater impact.

Open Data Institute

The Open Data Institute report on Responsible data stewardship sets out how open data concepts have emerged that represent how data should be used responsibly.

Open Educational Resource (OER) Guidance for Schools

The OER Guidance for Schools resource aims to support educators in understanding and making use of open licensing, and creating and sharing their own OER. 


Please cite this resource as: ‘Open Licensing: a digital heritage licensing briefing’ (2023) by Andrea Wallace and Michael Weinberg supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, CC BY 4.0.

With contributions by Javiera Atenas, design by Andrea Wallace. Contact the authors by email at:, and

Thank you to reviewers Josie Fraser and Francesca Farmer, and to Javiera Atenas for her contributions.

Thank you to the UK heritage organisations with open licensing policies for images and other materials which were crucial to illustrating this guide and providing robust examples of good practice. 

Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Licence Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0 Licence).

You might also be interested in...

If you query is regarding our application portal, please contact our support team.