Suppose I want to reuse some substantial piece of content - say, a figure1 - from someone else's paper in my own scholarly work. If the other paper is under a traditional license, I'll have to obtain explicit permission from the copyright holder (usually the publisher), and then when I include the figure in my own work, I can say "Figure from reference [x], used with permission."

However, if the other paper is under an open access license or is in the public domain, and my own work will be released under a compatible license, I don't need to explicitly contact the copyright holder to ask for permission to use their content. When I attribute the figure in my work, can I still say "used with permission"? Legally speaking, I do have permission to use it by virtue of the license under which it is released (or lack thereof, if public domain), but including that phrase makes it sound like I've received an explicit statement of permission from the copyright holder, and I wouldn't want to give a misleading impression about that.

If I shouldn't say "used with permission," what would be a suitable replacement? If it's under a Creative Commons license, for example, I could say something like

Figure from reference [x], used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license

but that seems a little verbose. Is there a better alternative?

I'm also interested in how to handle this when the content is in the public domain, or is under a much more permissive open access license (perhaps one whose attribution requirement is merely "you must credit the author"). I understand that I'm not legally required to include any notice saying that I'm allowed to use content under such a license. But for this question I'm more interested in the ethical obligations that a reader might perceive.

1Even though a single figure would often be considered fair use. But let's pretend for this question that whatever I want to reuse is enough that fair use doesn't apply.

This question concerns a similar situation, but is asking about whether it is legal to reuse content at all, whereas I'm asking about how to properly show that it is legal to do so, after it's been established that no explicit permission is necessary.

  • Read the terms of the CC license it is licensed under. It spells out, more or less, what you should do.
    – Bill Barth
    Jul 22, 2014 at 17:48
  • 1
    If the previously existing content is under a license with a "share-alike" clause, then you need to use the same license on your paper. Make sure that that license is going to be OK with the journal(s) you're submitting to.
    – user1482
    Jul 22, 2014 at 18:14

1 Answer 1


Almost all CC licenses include an attribution clause. As of the 4.0 version, this means:

Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.

Clicking the "appropriate credit" shows some more information:

If supplied, you must provide the name of the creator and attribution parties, a copyright notice, a license notice, a disclaimer notice, and a link to the material. CC licenses prior to Version 4.0 also require you to provide the title of the material if supplied, and may have other slight differences.

So the easiest way to satisfy this is, indeed, to say

Figure from reference [x], used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

Where your reference should contain the rest of the information, including a link. If you're pressed for space, you can abbreviate the license (CC BY 4.0), or put the text in a footnote.

  • 1
    OK, that helps... but let me nitpick a bit. Sec 3(a)(2) of the license says the information can be provided in any reasonable manner, such as at a URL referenced in the document. The journal page for the paper I'm taking the figure from includes a copyright notice and reference to the CC license etc., so it seems like linking to that URL may satisfy the requirement without me having to include an explicit copyright notice for the figure in my work. If that's true, then what do I need to include in my work to show that I have permission to use the figure?
    – David Z
    Jul 22, 2014 at 19:46
  • And if that's not true, here's a better example: suppose the figure is under a different open access license with a less strict attribution requirement - perhaps nothing more than "you must credit the author." Or perhaps it's public domain, so there is no attribution requirement and no legal restrictions at all on its use. What do I need to write in my work to show a reader that I'm allowed to use the figure in that case? That's the question I'm really interested in.
    – David Z
    Jul 22, 2014 at 19:49
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    @DavidZ Best practices for attribution gives more info about attribution. In particular, your reasonable manner seems to be satisfied by citing the article in question, as it contains both the author and the source. If you want to avoid naming the license with the figure, and the entire document you're citing is under the same license, you could place the license info in the bibliography as well.
    – Mangara
    Jul 25, 2014 at 17:41
  • @DavidZ There are no such guidelines for material in the public domain, so anything indicating that the work is in the public domain will do. You should be very careful with this, though. A work's public domain status depends on the copyright law of the country in which it was produced. And in some countries it is impossible for the creator to place something in the public domain before the copyright would expire naturally.
    – Mangara
    Jul 25, 2014 at 17:51

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