Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/Academy/A Beginners Guide to Copyright on Wikipedia

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A Beginners Guide to Copyright on Wikipedia

This document is not intended as legal advice, but instead a set of principles to help you comply with Wikipedia's copyright policies. If you have legal questions regarding copyright, you should consult an intellectual property rights attorney licensed in your area. Please be aware that while following these principles should keep you consistent with Wikipedia's copyright policies, it may not protect you from personal liability, particularly if you live in a different legal jurisdiction with more restrictive laws.

The use of previously published text and images on Wikipedia is guided by both law and our collective vision. As the Wikimedia Foundation is based in the United States, Wikipedia is subject to the laws of that country, but our approach to copyright is deliberately constructed to be more narrow than that law. This helps us to avoid inadvertently stepping over the line into copyright infringement and also keeps us consistent with our vision: that Wikipedia should be free for use, for everyone, everywhere.[1]

This guide is intended to help you understand what is permitted under Wikipedia's copyright policies and what is not. It is not policy itself. Where policy and this guide diverge, the policy takes precedence. Throughout this document, there will be links to the policies and guidelines under discussion so that, if you wish, you may check them yourself.

Reusing previously published text and images: the basics[edit]


If you find text elsewhere (whether in a print or web source), you can only copy it freely on Wikipedia if it is public domain in the United States or compatibly licensed.

Text may be public domain if its copyright has expired, if it was never eligible for copyright to begin with, or if the copyright holder has released it into public domain. For two common cases, if it was published anywhere in the world before 1 January 1923, you should be able to use it on Wikipedia. If it was made by an employee of the United States government as part of his or her duties, you should be able to use it on Wikipedia. If it does not meet the criteria set out at Wikipedia:Public domain, you shouldn't assume that you can use it, however, even if it there is no copyright statement on the website where you found it. Copyright is automatic under United States law.

Websites that are compatibly licensed (like our own) should have a licensing statement printed somewhere relatively easy to find. You can check the page itself, check the site's "About" page or "Terms of Use" and sometimes even "Privacy Policy." To be compatibly licensed, the website must explicitly allow reproduction (even commercially) and modification. A list of compatible licenses is found at WP:COMPLIC.

If it meets either of these two conditions, you can use as much of the text as you like. You do have to acknowledge that you are copying, though, to avoid plagiarism and sometimes to meet the legal licensing conditions. Attribution is usually given by an attribution template, placed in the "references" section of an article. See Wikipedia:Plagiarism#Compatibly-licensed sources and Wikipedia:Plagiarism#Public-domain sources.

Note that if the previously published source you want to use is Wikipedia or one of our sister projects, procedures for attribution are different. See Wikipedia:Copying within Wikipedia for how to handle those situations.

Non-free content[edit]

If the content is under copyright and not compatibly licensed (most of the sources you'll find), the situation is a little different. In that case, you are allowed to copy brief excerpts from your source as long as you clearly mark the content as copied, with quotation marks or in block quote, and cite your source. (See Wikipedia:Citing sources) You also need to note any changes you make to the source you're quoting, as with ellipses to mark text removal or square brackets for additions.

There is no specific definition of brief; a "brief excerpt" of a four stanza poem is going to be much shorter than a "brief excerpt" from a book. But the more you want to use, the more you should challenge your need. We must have good reason to quote text – the guideline linked above suggests a few: to illustrate a point, establish context, or attribute a point of view or idea." This makes sure that our use is transformative. If your excerpt needs to be more than a few lines, you should probably consider combining quotation and paraphrase.

Aside from brief excerpts, all information you take from non-free sources should be put in your own words and structure. Following your source too closely can create a derivative work. To avoid this, you should be careful not to paraphrase too closely.


Freely usable content[edit]

Just as with text, other media can only be freely used on Wikipedia if it is public domain in the United States or compatibly licensed. Wikipedia:Public domain does contain some information on determining when media is public domain. There is also a page on Wikipedia where you can go to ask questions about the copyright status of media: WP:MCQ. This page is manned by volunteers who are generally familiar with image copyright issues.

If media is public domain or compatibly licensed, it should be uploaded in most cases to our sister site, Commons. There are many acceptable licenses for media; you can read about them at Commons:Licensing. Two things they all share in common: they must allow media to be reused, even commercially, and they must permit derivative works.

Non-free content[edit]

If the media you want to use is under copyright and not compatibly licensed (most of the sources you'll find), you're going to have to determine if it meets the "non-free content" policy on Wikipedia. There are ten criteria it has to meet, all set out at that policy. The guideline sets out some recommendations for what can and cannot be used. If your usage is not explicitly set out as okay in Wikipedia:NFC#Audio clips or WP:NFCI or explicitly forbidden by WP:NFC#UUI or Wikipedia:NFC#Multimedia, you should look carefully at those ten criteria and ask yourself if the media you want to use meets all of them. (Please note that unlike non-free text, non-free media can only be used in articles. They can't be used on user pages, talk pages or Wikipedia pages.) If it does, you should be able to use it, unless there are extra considerations. List articles require special handling (see WP:NFLISTS) as do galleries.

Non-free media is uploaded to Wikipedia (not Commons) and always requires a "non-free use rationale" explaining why you think the image is acceptable under the non-free content policy and guideline. Guidance on adding these can be read at Wikipedia:Non-free use rationale guideline.

What to do if you're accused of violating copyright policy[edit]

The most important thing to do if you are accused of violating copyright policy is to stay calm and try to avoid taking it personally, even if the person accusing you takes an abrasive tone. The most important thing is to settle the question with as little fuss and drama as possible and move on to building the encyclopedia.

First take a look at your content and decide if you think it meets the policies and guidelines. If you do, explain calmly why to the other party. (Please remember that people looking out for copyright problems are also working to improve Wikipedia, even if they make a mistake.) If they disagree, you can take the matter to a dispute resolution noticeboard, like "possibly unfree files" or the copyright problems board, to get feedback from the community or from administrators who work in that area. If the community disagrees with you, you may need to reconsider your interpretation of the policies.

If, on the other hand, you decide that they are probably right, you can explain that you understand now why the content cannot be used. No one is expected to understand every policy on Wikipedia, and as long as you work with good faith not to repeat the error, you should have no further issues. If you know that you have made the same mistake with other articles or media, it would be a very good idea to proactively clean them up. If it's text, you can generally remove or rewrite it yourself. If it's media, you may need an administrator's assistance.

What to do if you think somebody else is violating copyright policy[edit]

There are two points to address here: the content must be cleaned, and the contributor must be informed of the problem.

Cleaning text issues may be as simple as removing or rewriting the problem area, but also can require tagging it for deletion or review by an administrator or copyright clerk. Cleaning media problems may include adding a "fair use rationale" to non-free media that is erroneously claimed under free license, tagging media for "speedy deletion" or bringing it up at one of the review boards. The guides linked above should help you figure out the best approach to the problem you encounter.

If you tag an article for deletion or review by an administrator or copyright clerk, the tag will generate a notice that you can give to the user in question. There are other templates you can use, some of which are described at Wikipedia:WikiProject Copyright Cleanup/Resources#For user pages. You can, of course, also leave a personal note to the contributor. Please remember that we do assume good faith of contributors in this case; even if they have not complied with policy, we assume they intended to unless they have been notified and continued.

If an editor has continued to contribute problematic material after prior notification, it is sometimes necessary to block that contributor to prevent recurrence. You may need to seek assistance the administrator's noticeboard.

If a contributor seems to have widespread copyright concerns, you may wish to consider requesting a contributor copyright investigation. See that page for instructions.


  1. ^ This is why, for instance, we don't accept material if people give us permission to use material only on Wikipedia or non-commercially, even though as a non-profit organization we could.