Skip to main content
European Commission logo
IP Helpdesk
News blog15 November 2021European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency6 min read

Open Access obligations in Horizon Europe: what are CC BY licences?


To most members of the European research community, the terms “Open Access” (“OA” in this article) are not exactly new anymore. The European Commission launched OA as a pilot within the FP7 Framework Programme (2007-2013), and later went on to make it mandatory for projects funded under Horizon 2020 (2014-2020), where it became the norm.

Under Horizon 2020, OA was defined as the obligation for beneficiaries to ensure “open, free-of-charge access to the end-user” to peer-reviewed scientific publications relating to their results. That obligation was laid out under article 29.2 of the model grant agreement.

The European Commission clarified that this obligation meant “ensuring that, at the very least, such publications [could] be read online, downloaded and printed”. While the EC did not impose specific licensing obligations at the time, it did issue recommendations according to which beneficiaries / authors were encouraged to provide additional rights (such as the right to copy, distribute, search, link, crawl and mine) and, to this end, to use Creative Commons or similar licences, such as CC BY.


This is where things get interesting: under Horizon Europe (including MSCA grants), OA to scientific peer-reviewed publications remains the norm, but what is new is that it now comes with an explicit obligation to license the publication “under the latest available version of the Creative Commons Attribution International Public Licence (CC BY) or a licence with equivalent rights” (see Annex 5 to the model grant agreement, additional obligations for article 17). An exception exists for monographs and other long-text formats, where “the licence may exclude commercial uses and derivative works (e.g. CC BY-NC, CC BY-ND)”.


So, when licensing your scientific article in CC BY, which rights are you granting to the public exactly?

Information about each type of CC licence can be found on the Creative Commons website. It can be useful to recall that all of them are copyright licences, meaning that:

  • they can only be used in relation to copyrighted works (inter alia: articles, monographs, novels, pictures, databases). Note however that Creative Commons recommends against using CC licences for software (they encourage instead the use of existing free or open-source software licences).
  • contrary to a common misconception, licensing a work under a Creative Commons licence does NOT imply putting it in the public domain. The public domain is made of works whose copyright has expired (or was explicitly waived by the author – Creative Commons has in fact created the CC0 tool to this end) – in other words, works which are free of rights. Works licensed under CC BY are anything but free of rights – they are copyrighted, and, while a CC licence includes permissive terms (being designed to ease dissemination and re-use), it requires that these terms be followed. Using a work beyond what is permitted by the CC licence chosen by the rightholder, for example distributing an article licensed under CC BY without giving credit to the author, constitutes copyright infringement.


Back to our main topic: according to Creative Commons, CC BY is the “most accommodating” of the CC licences offered and is recommended “for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials”. Why is it so?

In a nutshell, when licensing your work in CC BY 4.0, you will be giving others authorisation to:

  • Share your work: to copy and redistribute it in any medium or format
  • Adapt your work: to remix, transform, and build upon it
  • For commercial or non-commercial purposes.

The licensee will on the other hand be bound by attribution obligations, which consist of:

  • Giving you appropriate credit
  • Providing a link to the licence
  • Indicating if changes were made to your work.

As you can see, CC BY is broad and permissive in scope, allowing for a wide take-up of publications – and therefore easing the spreading of scientific knowledge throughout the research community, and beyond.


While a wide dissemination of your articles may boost your profile as a researcher, such a permissive licensing scope may also clash with your interests as copyright holder, for example:

  • preserving the integrity of your works
  • deriving income from the publication of your larger works

… both of which can be undermined by a CC BY licence, since it allows others to modify your works and to use them in competing commercial activities.


That is why the EC allows you to resort to more restrictive licences in cases where some of your monographs or other long-text formats fall under the scope of OA obligations. In particular, you can then use instead:

  • CC BY-NC: this is the exact same as CC BY (see above), except for the fact that commercial uses are not allowed. In other words, the licensee can share and adapt your work, provided that he/she gives you credit, links to the licence, and indicates whether changes were made to your work – but all these actions are only allowed for non-commercial purposes. Licensing a monograph under CC BY-NC will allow other scientists to, for example, include large parts of your text in their publications (provided that attribution is given, of course) – but not in works that they will commercialise. Therefore, you retain a monopoly on the commercialisation of your copyrighted work.


  • CC BY-ND: this licence is a bit different. It allows others to share (copy, redistribute) your work for any purposes (including commercially), provided that attribution is given. However, it does not allow any distribution of adapted versions (even for non-commercial purposes). Licensing a monograph under CC BY-ND means that you allow others to publish it commercially (provided that attribution is given) – but that you do not allow the distribution of any adapted versions. This allows you to prevent modified / mutilated versions of your work from going around.


  • CC BY-NC-ND: this one brings together the two licences described above, making it “the most restrictive” of the six Creative Commons licences. When applying this licence to your long-text copyrighted work, you allow others to share it, provided that attribution is given, but only for non-commercial purposes. Adaptations / modified versions of your work cannot be distributed. This licence therefore allows you to preserve the integrity of your work and to retain a monopoly on its commercialisation.


Remember that licensing your work under CC BY (or any kind of licence) entails that you should have the right to do so in the first place – meaning, that you own the copyright over your work or at least that you have retained sufficient rights to be able to license them and fulfil your OA obligations. This is why the Commission recommends that beneficiaries / authors notify publishers of this requirement early enough – already at manuscript submission. The Horizon Europe Programme Guide provides hints and an example of statement that can be used to this end (page 49).


To conclude, always keep in mind that…

  • OA is not an obligation to publish and not an obligation to disseminate. Simply, if/when you decide to publish, you will have to follow the OA policy and rules applicable in Horizon Europe.
  • Licensing your work in CC BY does not mean that you (or your organisation) will lose the copyright over it. It does not mean that your work will end up in the public domain. It does not mean that you are not allowed to commercialise your work. What it does means is that you will have to grant others permission to share it and adapt it too – while this can clash with your interests as copyright holder, this is NOT incompatible with the possibility for you to exploit your work commercially.
  • The attribution obligations included in CC BY mean that the more your work gets disseminated by others, the more recognition you will acquire as a researcher.
  • More restrictive CC BY licences can be used for long-text formats, as described above – allowing you to preserve the integrity of your larger works and to retain exclusivity over their commercialisation.


A final reminder: the specialised information service OpenAIRE is available for all your questions about Open Access, Open Data and Open Science obligations and policies in Horizon projects. This service offers many useful resources, FAQs, and even a Helpdesk to ask your questions to.

We wish you success in your Horizon projects!


Picture by ninocare on Pixabay



Publication date
15 November 2021
European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency