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President and CEO Kevin McCort said the move, will make its research articles, photographs, data sets, websites and educational materials easier to find, share and use.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Canada's largest community foundation has joined the growing, global Creative Commons movement to sidestep broad copyright laws and is committing to making the research and programming it funds free for anyone to use any way they see fit.

The Vancouver Foundation's only caveat is that those who use its intellectual property must properly attribute the source material to its creator or the 72-year-old non-profit, which dispersed about $57-million through more than 4,900 grants last year.

President and CEO Kevin McCort said the foundation is increasingly funding research into medical and social development issues and the move, announced earlier this month, will make its research articles, photographs, data sets, websites and educational materials easier to find, share and use. Under current copyright laws, those seeking permission to reproduce or translate material from a non-profit like the Vancouver Foundation often must submit a detailed written request explaining how the work will be used and then wait for a response, Mr. McCort said. Charities or non-profits also must commit resources to fielding and vetting these requests.

"A lot of people would call us and say 'We really like that report, can we use it?' Or 'What did you learn? Can we somehow share that?'" Mr. McCort said in an interview. "And we thought 'It actually looks like there's a barrier. We want the stuff to be used but people are afraid to use it or don't know they can.'"

By 2017, anybody who receives funding from the foundation must agree to release their work under a Creative Commons licence, which is a free, simple and standardized way of granting anyone the copyright permissions to use their creative work. The non-profit organization overseeing this framework said it has licensed nearly a billion works. Mr. McCort said his foundation is also studying its catalogue of projects to determine which ones can be opened up to the public under the Creative Commons licence.

Each year, about 70 per cent of the Vancouver Foundation's disbursements go to projects that aim to solve or study issues relating to communities in the Lower Mainland; most of the rest of that money funds projects across the province, according to Mr. McCort. The foundation's best-known research in recent years was a 2012 survey of Vancouver residents that showed the biggest worry for many in the city was a growing sense of loneliness and disconnection. That report's findings triggered an ongoing debate about how to combat this growing social problem.

Now, the foundation is funding several research projects on British Columbia's oft-criticized foster-care system, including a survey on how people view the service, Mr. McCort said.

The Canadian charity joins a growing list of heavyweights in the American philanthropy world that have adopted the new licensing system, according to Creative Commons' CEO Ryan Merkley. Last fall, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation mandated that all people who receive grants must follow its open licensing policy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation followed suit last November, and the Ford Foundation in February.

"In the last year or so, we've seen a lot of momentum," Mr. Merkley said from his office in Toronto.

Scientific and medical research in North America is being increasingly funded by charities, but the results often follow the academic route of publication in a peer-reviewed journal, many of which have paywalls that are counterintuitive to increasing the public dissemination of the data, Mr. Merkley argued.

"Frequently that work is funded either by governments, who are paying with our money, or foundations, whose goal is the maximum public good not the maximum profit of a for-profit journal," Mr. Merkley said.

A Creative Commons licence also allows researchers to capitalize on the momentum of their findings by immediately releasing them to be downloaded online, Mr. Merkley said. Whereas the general public might hear about a research project through news reports after a journal article is published, under a Creative Commons licence anyone can read and use the data after a report has been issued, he added.

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