I am a math professor, and I'm considering pushing my department to adopt OpenStax textbooks. These are free, and the website says that they are offered under the CC BY-NC-SA license.

However, the actual book lists some additional conditions on redistribution: the logo and "OpenStax" name are not to be reproduced, and an attribution is to be added on every page. As there is no .tex code (or similar) provided for the book, I don't see any way to produce modified versions, or in particular to produce a version without their logos or with the attribution.

Suppose that OpenStax gets shut down and stops distributing their textbooks, or that they start charging a lot of money for them. Would my math department be able to continue distributing old versions to our students for free?

  • The way the attribution requirement is worded does seem less than clear. For example, it says "you must retain on every page the following attribution ...", then cites an attribution message. However, if you look at the pages of the book itself, the attribution message which is already there is different. I suppose the intention is that you are allowed to distribute the PDF as is (since that version does contain attributions on each page, although it is not word-for-word using the same attribution message as is supposedly required). For the trademark issue you may have to ask a lawyer.
    – Brandin
    Aug 29, 2023 at 12:25
  • For producing modified versions, apparently OpenStax offers an "instructor account" for this. It seems they don't provide .tex files, but .docx files for each section. See the section "Book Customization" here: openstax.org/details/books/…
    – Brandin
    Aug 29, 2023 at 12:34
  • It sounds like the people who wrote the instructions did a poor job, or failed to update them for changing conditions. I suggest you write to them and ask for clarification. If they write back and refuse to fix it, but say "yes yes, the instructions are clearly wrong, just do what makes sense", that gives you some amount of legal coverage, although perhaps not an amount your university would be willing to rely on. Aug 30, 2023 at 1:29
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    It seems a stretch to call these books Open Source, if the source is not provided. (I think GNU defines "source" quite well as the form preferred for making changes.) Aug 30, 2023 at 15:17
  • 1
    @TobySpeight It's not "Open Source" because it violates OSI's definition (which prohibits the NC term). As far as I can tell, nothing on the OpenStax website uses the phrase "Open Source" in the first place.
    – Kevin
    Sep 19, 2023 at 20:48

1 Answer 1


You have received (copied) a text book under a certain license, and you can use this material forever (as long as you comply with the terms. The license states "This Public License applies for the term of the Copyright and Similar Rights licensed here. ... " This license does not terminate if the licensor later decides to charge money or ceases to exist.

This is not the right place to recommend tools which allow you to copy or modify content from PDF files. But they exist. So you will be able to create (with some effort) .tex files, and you can create versions (adapted materials) of the book without the trademarks of OpenStax. However, you will still be required to provide attribution to the Rice University.

[Note: Edited below to include issues triggered by the Rice University's specific attribution requirements]

On the webpage, the Rice University states:

Please note that this title is published under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license, which means that you are free to use and adapt, but not for commercial purposes. Changes you make need to be shared using this license.

Within the PDF file, the Rice University explains how they would like to see the attribution requirement to be fulfilled: [Note_1]

In any case of sharing the original or adapted material, whether in whole or in part, the user must provide proper attribution as follows:

  • If you noncommercially redistribute this textbook in a digital format (including but not limited to PDF and HTML), then you must retain on every page the following attribution: “Download for free at [...] openstax.org/details/books/calculus-volume-1.”
  • If you noncommercially redistribute this textbook in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution: “Download for free at [...] openstax.org/details/books/calculus-volume-1.”
  • If you noncommercially redistribute part of this textbook, then you must retain in every digital format page view (including but not limited to PDF and HTML) and on every physical printed page the following attribution: “Download for free at [...] openstax.org/details/books/calculus-volume-1.”
  • If you use this textbook as a bibliographic reference, please include [...] openstax.org/details/books/calculus-volume-1 in your citation.

Here starts the problem. While the CC license (Section 3.a.1.A.v) allows the download link, I think this language "Download for free at..." does not qualify as proper attribution, which is usually mentioning the copyright holder of the materials.

Furthermore, it is demanded that the download link is present on every page.

Case 1: If you redistribute this textbook unmodified as a PDF, then you run into the issues that (a) there is a different message present on most of the pages ("This OpenStax book is available for free at [...] cnx.org/content/col11964/1.12") and (b) this message is not even present on every page of the existing PDF [Note_1]. So in order to comply with the attribution format required by the copyright holder, you would need to use a PDF editor to edit each and every page.

Case 2: If you redistribute Adapted Material based on the PDF, where for example you copy chapters 2, 4 and 6 from this textbook while you write chapters 1, 3 and 5 yourself from scratch, then the requirement to have the download message on every page will be confusing and misleading, because that statement is factually wrong, your file cannot be downloaded from the link provided by Rice University.

The requirement for attribution on each and every page is also in contradiction with the CC license Section 3.a.2.

You may satisfy the conditions in Section 3(a)(1) in any reasonable manner based on the medium, means, and context in which You Share the Licensed Material. For example, it may be reasonable to satisfy the conditions by providing a URI or hyperlink to a resource that includes the required information.

And finally, when you download the textbook, modify it and distribute it further, the recipient is a 'downstream recipient' and you are bound to the CC license without any additional terms. Section 2.a.5.C states:

No downstream restrictions. You may not offer or impose any additional or different terms or conditions on, or apply any Effective Technological Measures to, the Licensed Material if doing so restricts exercise of the Licensed Rights by any recipient of the Licensed Material.

This means that when distributing the adapted materials downstream, you are not allowed to impose the 'on every page' requirement of Rice University to any downstream recipients.

You must comply with the terms of the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. Where statements in the PDF are in conflict with the terms of the CC license you can likely ignore these statements because on the website the Rice University clearly commits to the CC license without any caveats.
If you want to be friendly you may contact the support[at]openstax email address, point them to the discrepancies in their offering, and ask for clarification.

Note_1: This language is taken from just one of their files, it may vary in different files.

Please note that this is not legal advice. IANAL, and courts in Texas sometimes have come to strange verdicts in cases related to IPR.

  • 1
    For this example, the requested attribution says to link to openstax.org rather than to Rice University. I assume that linking to OpenStax's site (as requested by the license) does not itself count as a 'use' of the OpenStax trademark, or that it's a nominative fair use.
    – Brandin
    Aug 29, 2023 at 12:56
  • @Brandin Thx for the comment. I'll study the wording again and revise my answer. I just saw the words "©2020 Rice University" and used that in my answer. The language which the Rice University demands as 'attribution' ("“Download for free at openstax.org/details/books/calculus-volume-1.") will actually be misleading when we talk about adapted materials, and the demand to have this language on each and every page of adapted materials seems to be in conflict with Section 3.a.2. of the license and possibly with Section 2.a.5.C. Aug 29, 2023 at 14:13
  • Yes I agree that the message requested seems a bit strange. It's also strange that the book itself uses a different message on its own content (which is CC-licensed).
    – Brandin
    Aug 30, 2023 at 6:16
  • @Brandin I heavily modified the answer. I would appreciate your thoughts and comments. Aug 30, 2023 at 13:27
  • Yes this Answer is now very useful. It's maybe also worth mentioning that the attribution message seems to depend on which book. I checked another book on OpenStax and instead they request the message to be "Access for free at openstax.org", and at least for that book, that message is in fact is present on each page of the official PDF. Still, that message might still run into problems for adaptors, as you've pointed out here.
    – Brandin
    Aug 30, 2023 at 14:35

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