Wikipedia:Copyright FAQ

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The short version

This section gives brief answers to the three most commonly asked questions about copyright on Wikipedia, with pointers to other relevant pages. The rest of this page gives a basic overview of copyright law.

Can I add something to Wikipedia that I got from somewhere else?

In general, no. Most of the content people want to add is copyrighted, although some work has been made available by authors under an appropriate license (see below), and some work is in the public domain (see below). The absence of a copyright notice does not mean that a work may be freely used.

Works whose licenses restrict their use only to Wikipedia or prohibit commerical use are unacceptable on Wikipedia as well. Under very narrow circumstances, copyrighted images can be used without permission under the "fair use" clause of U.S. copyright law (see Wikipedia:Fair use and below). If in doubt, assume you cannot use it.

Can I reuse Wikipedia's content somewhere else?

Wikipedia's textual content is copyrighted, but you may reuse it under the terms of our licensing requirements, summarized below.

Text in Wikipedia, excluding quotations, has been released under the GNU Free Documentation License (or is in the public domain), and can therefore be reused only if you release any derived work under the GFDL. This requires that, among other things, you attribute the authors and allow others to freely copy your work. (This is a summary, see the licence text for the exact details.)

If you are unwilling or unable to use the GFDL for your work, use of Wikipedia content is unauthorized. Small quotations of Wikipedia content, with its source attributed, may be permissable under the "fair use" clause of U.S. copyright law. See Wikipedia:Citing Wikipedia for information about the proper citation of articles. No permission is needed to create a hyperlink to Wikipedia or its articles.

Images used in Wikipedia may have their own, completely independent licensing scheme. Looking at an image's description page by clicking on the image itself should ideally tell you the copyright status of the image. Many images are either in the public domain or licensed under copyleft licenses (such as the GFDL), but many are copyrighted and used on Wikipedia under the "fair use" clause of U.S. copyright law.

What should I do if I find a copyright violation on Wikipedia?

We take this very seriously. We try hard to keep copyright violations out of Wikipedia, but we don't always succeed. If you are the copyright holder, go to Wikipedia:Request for immediate removal of copyright violation; otherwise, go to Wikipedia:Copyright problems and report the instance in question.

What is copyright?

Copyright is the right that the producer of a creative work has been granted to prevent others from copying it. Unlike a patent, however, in most countries you don't have to apply for a copyright - you get one automatically every time you produce creative work.

A creative work can be almost anything - a book, a song, a picture, a photograph, a poem, a phrase, or a fictional character. In the U.S., buildings built on or after December 1, 1990 are also eligible for copyright. [1]

Licenses may be granted to others, giving them the right to copy the work subject to certain conditions. A license is similar to a contract - the work may only be copied under the conditions given by the copyright holder or if one of the other exceptions to the copy right applies.

Copyright laws vary between countries; the relevant U.S. law is Title 17. The Berne convention is a comprehensive international agreement on copyrights which is part of the copyright law of many nations.

Copyright does not protect against all possible copying: both U.S. law and the Berne Convention limit its scope and enable much copying without permission even if the copyright holder objects. Also, both the Berne Convention and U.S. law require that a work have some original creativity to be eligible for a copyright monopoly. Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service contains some examples of U.S. decisions about what is and isn't original, including examples such as typo correction.

Public domain

A work which is not copyrighted is in the public domain, and may be freely copied by anyone. It may have been placed in the public domain by its creator, it may be ineligible for copyright (not original enough or otherwise excluded), or the copyright may have expired: in the United States for example, almost all works published prior to 1923 are public domain because their copyright term expired and in the UK and much of Europe, all musical recordings are in the public domain 50 years after release. (In the United States special laws have been passed to extend copyright for certain works beyond the normal term.)

All work produced by employees of the U.S. federal government as part of their work is public domain—thus, much of the content found on U.S. government websites (.gov and .mil) is public domain. However, the government frequently includes works on its websites which are copyrighted by someone else, and the U.S. government can even own copyright on works which are produced by others. In other words, some U.S. Federal websites can include works which are not in the public domain--check the copyright status before assuming something is public domain. Note also that this applies only to the U.S. Federal government. Most state governments retain the copyright on their work (California being a notable exception).

Works produced by the UK government are not public domain; they are covered by Crown copyright.

Seeing something on the internet without a copyright notice does not mean that it is in the public domain. Only two countries, Uruguay and Paraguay, currently require copyright notices for a work to be covered by copyright.

If public domain work is included in a copyrighted product the new product is not public domain. The portions of the new copyrighted work that are from a public domain source may be removed and copied without permission. For example when a public domain text is included in a wikipedia article the tags and any additional text are still under gnu.

Derivative works

A derivative work is something that is "based on and a close copy of" another work. For example, the Harry Potter movies are derivative works of the Harry Potter books. Therefore, the Harry Potter movies required J.K. Rowling's permission to make and distribute the films.

You may not distribute a derivative work without the original author's permission unless you're using one of the rights they weren't granted (like fair use or fair dealing). Generally, a summary (or analysis) of something is not a derivative work, unless it reproduces the original in great detail, at which point it becomes an abridgement and not a summary.

Taking a work in the public domain and modifying it in a significant way creates a new copyright on the work. For instance, the Homecoming Saga by Orson Scott Card is a re-telling of the Book of Mormon. Therefore, the books in the Homecoming series can be copyrighted.

However, the new work must be different from the original in order for a new copyright to apply, as the court ruled in Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corporation.

The Bridgeman Art Library had made photographic reproductions of famous works of art from museums around the world (works already in the public domain.) The Corel Corporation used those reproductions for an educational CD-ROM without paying Bridgeman. Bridgeman claimed copyright infringement. The Court ruled that reproductions of images in the public domain are not protected by copyright if the reproductions are slavish or lacking in originality. In their opinion, the Court noted: "There is little doubt that many photographs, probably the overwhelming majority, reflect at least the modest amount of originality required for copyright protection.... But 'slavish copying', although doubtless requiring technical skill and effort, does not qualify." [2]

This ruling only applies to two-dimension works. For pictures of statues (which is, effectively, a translation of a three dimensional work into a two-dimensional copy) the picture taker has creative input into which angle to take the photographs from. Therefore, a new copyright is created when the picture is taken. Therefore, pictures of public domain 3D works are not necessarily in the public domain.

Pictures of copyrighted buildings are not considered derivative works. "The copyright in an architectural work that has been constructed does not prevent the making, distributing, or public display of pictures, paintings, photographs, or other pictorial representations of the work – but only if the building in which the work is embodied is located in or ordinarily visible from a public place." [3]

What is fair use?

Under certain conditions, you may copy a copyrighted work without a license from the original author. One of these limitations on the rights granted to the copyright holder is called "fair use." A more restricted version called fair dealing generally applies outside the United States.

Generally, fair use exceptions are ill-defined, and vary widely from country to country. What is fair use in one country may not be in another country.

Under U.S. copyright law, the primary things to consider when asking if something is fair use (set forth in Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 107) are:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
    Is it a for profit competitor or not? Is it for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research? Is the use transformative (of a different nature to the original publication)?
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work;
    Is it a highly original creative work with lots of novel ideas or a relatively unoriginal work or listing of facts? Is the work published (to a non-restricted audience)? If not, fair use is much less likely.
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
    How much of the original work are you copying? Are you copying more or less than the minimum required for your purpose? The more you exceed this minimum, the less likely the use is to be fair. Are you reducing the quality or originality, perhaps by using a reduced size version?
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
    Does this use hurt or help the original author's ability to sell it? Did they intend to or were they trying to make the work widely republished (as with a press release)? Are you making it easy to find and buy the work if a viewer is interested in doing so?

None of these factors alone is sufficient to make a use fair or not fair - all of them must be considered and weighed. It's routine for courts to express degrees of acceptability or unacceptability for each factor and try to come to a summary and conclusion based on the balance.

Quotations are very well known and widely used form of fair use and fair dealing and are explictly allowed under the Berne convention.

If you produce a derivative work based on fair use, your work is a fair use work. Even if you release your changes into the public domain, the original work and fair use of it remains and the net effect is fair use. To eliminate this you must make the use of the original so insubstantial that the portion used is insufficient to be covered by copyright.

It is possible for a work to be both licensed and fair use. You may have a license which applies in one country or for one use and may make fair use in other cases. The licenses help to reduce the legal risk, by providing some assurance that there won't be legal action for the uses they cover. It's often wise to ask for a license, even a restrictive license, even if you are sure that your use is fair.

Wikipedia and fair use

Because the database servers are located in the United States, Wikipedia is subject to U.S. copyright law in this matter and may not host material which infringes U.S. copyright law. Wikipedia:Fair use is an evolving page offering more specific guidance about what is likely to be fair use in the Wikipedia articles, with examples. In general, the educational and transformative nature of Wikipedia articles provides an excellent fair use case for anyone reproducing an article.

Other considerations for photographers

Particularly in relation to photographers a number of other considerations may also restrict your right to take or publish photographs. For example a photograph of a person may infringe their right to privacy. Similarly you may not have the right to take photographs in non-public locations. These restrictions are often mistakenly referred to as copyright infringements when in fact other laws apply.

A useful short hand guides to the rights and restriction affecting photographers can be found at:


A license is a permission to use a work in the way described by the license. A single work can have as many licenses as the creator decides are useful.

Example - the very widely used database MySQL is available with at least two possible licenses, one a GPL license, the other a license allowing distribution of modifications without compelling publication of source code.

It's very common for a copyright holder to provide licenses tailored to the needs of an individual large business customer; it's much less so for individual, and small business customers. Typically, individuals will use one of the following boilerplates:

Non-commercial licenses

There are many different kinds of non-commercial licenses, but generally they say something like You may use, copy, or distribute this work for non-commercial purposes.

Example: "Images contributed to this database by the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes without asking permission from the COC or paying copyright royalty"

Jimbo has prohibited the use of these. However, they may still be used under the terms of fair use.

Educational licenses

It is very common for scientific works to allow educational use. What each publisher considers to be educational varies. Some consider only schools and colleges to be educational, others include all forms of public education, including encyclopedias, to be educational.

Jimbo has prohibited the use of these. However, they may still be used under the guise of fair use.

BSD-style licenses

A BSD-style license is one that says (essentially): "You may use, copy, or distribute this work, as long as you give credit to the original author" or something along those lines. The key attribute of this general type of license is that they seek to make it as easy as possible to reuse the work: the objective is generally to make the work available and as widely used as possible, without releasing it to the public domain.

Example: "Photo by John Smith. Copyright 1999. Permission granted for free use and distribution, conditioned upon inclusion of the above attribution and copyright notice."
Mary can now use and modify the photograph and does not need to allow others the same permission to copy that John did: she's free to choose to do so or not, depending on her own personal preference.

Because of the very limited license requirements, license incompatibility problems with this type of license are relatively uncommon, so it's very easy to reuse these works.

The original BSD license was used for the Berkeley Software Distribution operating system, from which it gets its name.

Copyleft licenses

Some licenses are called "copyleft" licenses. Essentially, they have three key properties:

  • A work licensed with a copyleft license can be copied at will.
  • All published derivative works must use exactly the same license as the original: if you use the work, you're forced to use the same license for your own original work as well.
  • If your work is using a different license, you can't use the copyleft license, even if your work is also using a (different) copyleft licence.

You aren't forced to use the copyleft work as part of your own work if you don't want to accept the license.

There is increasing awareness of the license incompatibility problem of copyleft licenses, since many people are simply trying to force reusers to publish the source of their work. Licenses which allow the use of other copyleft licenses seem likely to evolve to overcome the fragmentation of the copyleft world. Today, multiple licensing (licensing under all desired copyleft licenses) is the best workaround available. Sometimes people don't want to solve this problem: they may believe that the Free Software Foundation or Creative Commons is best and may want to hurt the one they dislike or promote only the one they like.

Example: Alice writes a thesis on St. Peter and releases it under a copyleft license. Bob wants to use part of her thesis in his book about the Bible, but if he does, he would have to release his book under the same license. This would let others copy Bob's book whenever they want without paying him for it.
Example: Alice writes a programming language example at WikiBooks. Bob can't use it in his GPL computer program because the GFDL and GPL are different and incompatible copyleft licenses. Alice would need to offer both a GFDL and GPL license to allow this use.
Example: Alice writes a thesis. Bob wants to use part of the thesis in a description of a trade secret. He can't do this, because the license requires him to make the trade secret public, not restrict distribution to only those who agree not to publish the trade secret. Bob would need to ask Alice for a different license.

On Wikipedia, images licensed under incompatible but similar copyleft licenses (like {{cc-by-sa}}) are allowed, as they can be incorporated into articles at will (as the actual GFDLed text just has a pointer to the image) and the only thing that can't be done is using parts of both images to create a new image (as derivatives must be under the same license).


The GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) is a copyleft license produced by the Free Software Foundation.

Example: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or later

Some people have complained that the GFDL is too hard to interpret and too hard for reusers of small works to comply with because the license can be longer than the work covered by the license. This reflects its origins as a license intended for manuals, not small works. There is some hope that the FSF will help to remove these problems in a future version.

All text on Wikipedia is licensed under the GFDL.

Creative Commons licenses

"Creative Commons License" (CCL) may refer to one of several licenses written by Creative Commons (founded by Lawrence Lessig). All CCL licenses allow free distribution of the work, but different CC licenses offer different combinations of these features:

  • Requiring attribution (à la BSD licenses).
  • Noncommercial (disallowing commercial reuse).
  • No Derivative Works (prohibiting someone from distributing a derivative work).
  • Share Alike (copyleft) (requiring someone to distribute their derivative work under the same license).

Typical commercial licenses

A typical commercial license is written to prohibit redistribution and limit the rights of the licensee as far as practical while still allowing them to make some use of the work. While any license is better than no license, these are often very restrictive.

As with non-commercial and educational licenses, these may not be used on Wikipedia, although works licensed as such may be used under the guise of fair use.

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