This section gives brief answers to the four 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?
The absence of a copyright notice does not mean that a work may be freely used. (At the same time, copyright notices have sometimes been incorrectly applied to uncopyrighted material.) If in doubt, assume you cannot use it.
You can add any type of content if it has been made available by authors under an appropriate license (see below). It's not enough to have a license that restricts use only to Wikipedia or prohibits commercial use; these are treated as if there was no license at all. You can also add content if it is in the public domain, as discussed below. If the material you would like to use is not currently licensed compatibly with Wikipedia, you may be able to obtain permission to use it. See Requesting copyright permission for details.
More licenses are permitted for images. See Wikipedia:File copyright tags for some of the licenses permitted as well as an explanation of what criteria the license must meet.
Occasionally, the question is raised about the copyright status of press releases. While press releases are by nature intended to be reproduced widely, there is no inherent permission to alter them or create derivative works based on them, or to use them for commercial purposes. Accordingly, press releases are handled like other copyrighted content. In the absence of explicit disclaimer or permission, these may not be freely reproduced.
Under very narrow circumstances, copyrighted images and text can be used without permission under the "fair use" clause of US copyright law. Limited use of copyrighted text, for example, can be done without requiring permission from the rights holders for such things as scholarship and review. See Wikipedia:Non-free content and below for more information on when and how copyrighted text and images can be used on Wikipedia.
Unless copyrighted images and text meet Wikipedia's non-free content allowance, we can't use them or create "derivative works" of them. That means we can't translate too much from a copyrighted foreign language source to include it here or prominently feature a copyrighted image inside of a picture we take. (See below for more explanation of derivative works.)
Facts cannot be copyrighted. It is legal to read an encyclopedia article or other work, reformulate the concepts in your own words, and submit it to Wikipedia. But be careful not to closely paraphrase; the structure, presentation, and phrasing of the information should be your own original creation. The United States court of appeals noted in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service that factual compilations of information may be protected with respect to "selection and arrangement, so long as they are made independently by the compiler and entail a minimal degree of creativity," as "[t]he compilation author typically chooses which facts to include, in what order to place them, and how to arrange the collected data so that they may be used effectively by readers." You can use the facts, but unless they are presented without creativity (such as an alphabetical phone directory), you may need to reorganize as well as restate them to avoid substantial similarity infringement. It can be helpful in this respect to utilize multiple sources, which can provide a greater selection of facts from which to draw.
Can I use an image from someone else's Wikipedia article in my article?
If the image is tagged as Fair use, then most probably you cannot. See the Fair use section for more details.
You can for all other images released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License or a similarly free license provided you abide by the license conditions - include a link back to the wikipage for that picture or to the creator's website and license any modified version you create under the same license as the original.
Some text has been imported only under CC-BY-SA and CC-BY-SA-compatible licenses and cannot be reused under GFDL; such text will be identified either on the page footer, in the page history or the discussion page of the article that utilizes the text. All text published before June 15th, 2009 on Wikipedia was released under the GFDL, and you may also use the page history to retrieve content published before that date to ensure GFDL compatibility.
If you are unwilling or unable to use the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License or the GNU Free Documentation License for your work, use of Wikipedia content is unauthorized. Small quotations of Wikipedia content, with its source attributed, may be permissible under the "fair use" clause of US 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 Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License), but many are copyrighted and used on Wikipedia under the "fair use" clause of US copyright law.
What should I do if I find a copyright violation on Wikipedia?
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 places (i.e., 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 US, buildings built on or after December 1, 1990 are also eligible for copyright.
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 US 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 US law and the Berne Convention limit copyright scope and enable much copying without permission even if the copyright holder objects. For example, piano roll (mechanical) rights for music within the US are available under a compulsory license with licensing rates that are set by the US Copyright Office. (To be covered by this compulsory license, the music in question must have been previously released to the public in the form of a recording at least once.) In the US, fair use (in the UK, fair dealing) is explicitly permitted as well, as is the right to sell a licensed copy of a copyrighted work, such as a video tape or sound recording. Also, both the Berne Convention and US 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 US decisions about what is and isn't original, including examples such as typo correction.
"Copyright is a temporary monopoly granted by the government – it creates the legal fiction that a piece of writing or composing ... is property and can only be sold by those who have been licensed to do so by the copyright holder". – Orson Scott Card. Note that it is limited to the form of expression, not to the ideas. Thus, a book by Agatha Christie is likely to be copyrighted, but the mere idea of a detective with an accent and odd personal mannerisms would not be, nor would a story about someone claiming to be the premier consulting detective in a major city be a violation of the Conan Doyle copyrights on Sherlock Holmes stories. Ideas and facts are not copyrightable in most places, only the form of expression of them.
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.) See also List of countries' copyright lengths.
All work produced by employees of the US federal government as part of their work is public domain within the US—thus, much of the content found on US 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 US government can even own copyright on works which are produced by others. In other words, some US 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 US Federal government. Most state governments retain the copyright on their work (California and Florida being notable exceptions).
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.
If public domain work is included in a copyrighted product then 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 any additional text or new creative elements are still under CC-BY-SA and the GFDL.
You may not distribute a derivative work of a work under copyright without the original author's permission unless your use of their content meets 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 abridgment and not a summary.)
Taking a work in the public domain and modifying it in a significant way creates a new copyright on the resulting 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. No Fear Shakespeare is a series adapting the works of Shakespeare into modern language. Even though Shakespeare's works are public domain, the No Fear Shakespeare series is protected by copyright. This is true as well of the translations in the Penguin Classics series. Although faithful translations of public domain works, they each are protected by copyright.
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."
This ruling only applies to two-dimensional 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 free unless it was created by the uploader. In addition, in some countries such as the United Kingdom, simple diligenceis enough for a work to be copyrightable (including reproductions of public domain works). The position of the Wikimedia Foundation on this, however, is that any reproduction of a two-dimensional work in the public domain is not copyrightable, for otherwise the very purpose of the public domain would be defeated as to such works.
Pictures of copyrighted buildings are not considered derivative works, unless the country it is photographed in does not have freedom of panorama provisions (such as France or Italy). In United States copyright law though, "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." As such, freely-licensed photos of copyrighted buildings (but not photos of copyrighted artwork attached to buildings) generally can be hosted on the US-based English Wikipedia regardless of where the photo was taken.
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 US copyright law, the primary things to consider when asking if something is fair use (set forth in Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 107) are:
The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
The nature of the copyrighted work;
The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
Asking yourself these questions might help you determine if something is fair use:
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)?
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.
How much of the original work are you copying? Does the portion that you are copying constitute the "heart" of the work and/or its most powerful and significant part? 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?
Does this use hurt or help the original author's ability to sell it; in particular, does it replace the market for authorized copies? 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.
Since the 1990s, US rulings on fair use have emphasized the two questions of (1) whether the usage was for a transformative purpose (i.e. a different purpose than the original market purpose) and (2) whether the usage was appropriate with regard to community practice in the community (i.e. higher education) in which the usage took place.
Quotations are a very well known and widely used form of fair use and fair dealing and are explicitly 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.
Stanford University Library - Summaries of Fair Use Cases
Because the database servers are located in the United States, Wikipedia is subject to US copyright law in this matter and may not host material which infringes US copyright law. Wikipedia:Non-free content is an evolving page offering more specific guidance about what is likely to be fair use in the Wikipedia articles and what Wikipedia policy will accept, 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.
Useful short-hand guides may be found concerning certain rights and restrictions affecting photographs taken
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:
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 and the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation passed an official resolution about this in 2007. They may still be used under the doctrine of fair use in the English Wikipedia; some other projects, such as the Spanish Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Commons, prohibit them entirely.
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 terms of fair use.
Permissive licenses allow for unrestricted use, modification, and distribution of a copyrighted work. The modified BSD license, the X11 license, and the MIT license are each examples of permissive licenses. These licenses seek to make it as easy as possible to reuse the licensed work: the objective is generally to make the work available and as widely used as possible, but without releasing it to the public domain. Those using permissively licensed works can relicense derivative work under more restrictive license terms.
Because of the very limited license requirements, license incompatibility problems with this type of license are relatively uncommon, so it is very easy to reuse these works.
An attribution license is a permissive license with an additional requirement of attribution of previous authors' works in any derivative work. An attribution licenses says (essentially): "You may use, copy, or distribute this work, as long as you give credit to the original author." The original "four clause" BSD license is an example of an attribution license.
Example: "Photo by John Smith. Copyright 1999. Permission granted for free use and distribution, conditioned upon inclusion of the above attribution and copyright notice."
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.
If you don't want to accept the license of the copyleft work then you may not use the copyleft work as part of your own work
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. This is why we, with the cooperation of the Free Software Foundation, arranged to migrate Wikipedia from the GFDL license to the CC-BY-SA license and why we recommend this license to others.
On Wikipedia, images licensed under incompatible but similar copyleft licenses are allowed, as they can be incorporated into articles at will (as the actual text under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License and the GNU Free Documentation License 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).
Creative Commons licenses
"Creative Commons License" (CCL) may refer to one of several licenses written by Creative Commons (founded by Lawrence Lessig). Most of the CCLs allow non-commercial distribution of the work if it's unmodified, but different ones allow different combinations of various features:
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).
Some of the deprecated licences still apply full copyright to people in developed countries (Developing Nations Licence), or don't permit distribution of the whole work (Sampling Licence)
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.
Most of the text on Wikipedia is also licensed under GFDL. In order to determine whether a page is available under the GFDL, review the page footer, page history, and discussion page for attribution of single-licensed content that is not GFDL-compatible.
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.
^According to the WMF legal team, CC BY-SA 4.0 is not backwards compatible with CC BY-SA 3.0. Therefore, mixing text licences under 3.0 and 4.0 would be problematic, however media files uploaded under this licence are fine.
^Statement from Deputy Director of the WMF "To put it plainly, WMF's position has always been that faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain, and that claims to the contrary represent an assault on the very concept of a public domain."