If I am using images with a copyleft license (e.g. CC-BY-SA), each of them as a separate, properly attributed piece, does it mean that the whole work (be it slides, a thesis or a book) need to be licensed in the same way?

Reasoning 1

This work uses images, so it's a derivative work and it needs to bear the same license.

Reasoning 2

This work is a collection. So, as long as I keep the images separate, and properly attributed/licensed, they do not affect the collection license.

Practical implications

  • Using Wikipedia images in a presentation - does it mean that it need to be released as CC-BY-SA?
  • Is it possible to use images from two non-compatible copyleft licenses (e.g. CC-BY-SA and GPL) in a single book?

Comment: My question is on what is legal according to these licenses, not what "won't put me in jail" or what can be waived by the law of a particular country.

  • 1
    Are there any any examples of images which are licensed under GPL? I don't think the FSF recommends this practice.
    – MJeffryes
    Jul 6, 2015 at 14:45
  • @MJeffryes My friend had this issue (photos of some rare ant species; whether recommended or not - they were under GPL). In any case, I am changing this question to focus on CC-BY-SA, which is my main concern. (And I guess, answer may vary by license.) Jul 6, 2015 at 14:51
  • @MJeffryes: If you don't believe in the existence of images subject to GPL, simply pretend the other embedded thing is not a figure, but a code listing subject to the GPL. Jul 6, 2015 at 14:59

2 Answers 2


Including CC-licensed images as discrete elements in your work does not require the overall work to be CC-licensed. Reasoning 2 is correct here.

(See a similar discussion on opendata.se)

The BY-SA license works in terms of "collective works" and "derivative works":

1a. "Collective Work" means a work, such as a periodical issue, anthology or encyclopedia, in which the Work in its entirety in unmodified form, along with one or more other contributions, constituting separate and independent works in themselves, are assembled into a collective whole. A work that constitutes a Collective Work will not be considered a Derivative Work (as defined below) for the purposes of this License.

1c. "Derivative Work" means a work based upon the Work or upon the Work and other pre-existing works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which the Work may be recast, transformed, or adapted, except that a work that constitutes a Collective Work will not be considered a Derivative Work for the purpose of this License. (...)

An image reproduced as part of a larger document ("see Figure 17...") falls under 1a as a collective work. You have to comply with the formalities of the licensing (4a, identify the license, 4c, identify the author), but section 4b is explicit that it "...does not require the Collective Work apart from the Work itself to be made subject to the terms of this License."

If you do modify the image (eg by adding a new element to a chart, making a composite of two photos, etc), then you have to release that new image as CC-BY-SA, but you can still incorporate it into your non-SA book as a single collective-work element.

Having said all that, 1a could certainly do with some broader examples of what constitutes a collective work, to avoid ambiguity...

Edit (October 2015): a US district court has recently discussed a similar issue (a CC-BY-SA image being used as the cover of a book) and held that that situation clearly constitutes a "collective work":

Because this 112-page book of maps is not in any way "based upon"” the Photograph, and because defendant did not "recast, transform[], or adapt[]" the Photograph when it used it as the cover art for the Atlas, see License § 1(b), the Court finds that neither the Atlas nor its cover constitutes a derivative work subject to the ShareAlike requirement. Rather, the Atlas is more akin to a collective work, because the Photograph was placed "in its entirety in unmodified form" alongside "other contributions, constituting separate and independent works" – that is, the maps."

  • 7
    The term "Collective Work" is gone in CC 4.0 and "Derivative Work" has been renamed to "Adapted Material." Since "Adapted Material" does not contain an exemption for "Collective Work[s]," it is not immediately clear to me that your analysis extends to 4.0.
    – Kevin
    Jul 6, 2015 at 18:29
  • 1
    @Kevin - interesting. You're right that they seem to have dropped the clear description of this use; however, I think it still applies. General conditions for the use of "licensed material" are covered by 3a, and 3b (the share-alike clause) only applies to "Adapted Material". While there's no exception, the examples given to define 'adapted' all involve transforming the underlying work, not merely reproducing it. Jul 6, 2015 at 21:58
  • I imagine they changed it for internationalization purposes. The new wording seems to be tied to the local definition of "derivative work," which IMHO means the best answer would be "ask a lawyer."
    – Kevin
    Jul 7, 2015 at 2:24
  • An image reproduced as part of a larger document ("see Figure 17...") falls under 1a as a collective work. I'm not sure that this interpretation of "collective work" is correct, as I have difficulties seeing a thesis as collection of independent images. In most cases, images are tightly integrated with the text of the thesis. Do you have a legal reference for your interpretation?
    – silvado
    Jul 7, 2015 at 19:57
  • 1
    @silvado as it happens, a court has just ruled on the compilation/derivative question :-) Not perfectly analogous to this situation, but pretty close. technollama.co.uk/… Oct 27, 2015 at 9:36

I'm going to ignore the GPL case, since the licence is not intended for images. For the CC licences, one interpretation is that incorporating a CC licensed image in your presentation or thesis does not make your presentation or thesis a derivative work of the image. You only create a derivative work when you modify the image itself. As such, it is not required that you redistribute the entire work under the licence. This also affects share-alike. Share-alike is only invoked if you create a derivative work, so as long as you do not modify the image you are using, you do not need to redistribute it. Here is a series of blog posts by a librarian which discusses the use of no-derivative work and share-alike work. Her interpretation is that these are examples of cases which are not derivatives:

  • Including a short story in a collection of short stories

  • Reproducing an unedited image on a website

  • Using an unedited video in the background of a live concert

This is not the only possible interpretation of the licences, but your use might fall under an exemption or fair use of the images in your jurisdiction regardless of the licence.

  • 1
    Can you link to an interpretation on the Creative Commons website that supports this? I haven't looked into this in awhile, so my recollection is fuzzy, but the main BY-SA page says "ShareAlike — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original." I think "build upon" and "remix" are broad enough to include OP's question about incorporation.
    – Bill Barth
    Jul 6, 2015 at 15:02
  • @BillBarth My interpretation (and that of the librarian I've linked to) is that a derivative work only occurs when you modify the work itself. Simply including it unmodified in part of a larger work doesn't make the larger work a derivative.
    – MJeffryes
    Jul 6, 2015 at 15:19
  • Uh, that covers ND not SA directly. There is a link to what that librarian thinks of SA at the bottom, and then there is disagreement in the comments about whether collective works are covered or not. I wouldn't take this as gospel.
    – Bill Barth
    Jul 6, 2015 at 15:23
  • @BillBarth Both ND and SA have the same concept of derivative works, but I take your point that this does seem controversial. It's actually quite surprising that the CC people don't make it clear if they intend this use to be allowed.
    – MJeffryes
    Jul 6, 2015 at 15:26
  • If you read the [license]() itself, I think things are much clearer and that you are right: "The above applies to the Work as incorporated in a Collective Work, but this does not require the Collective Work apart from the Work itself to be made subject to the terms of this License." I withdraw my objection.
    – Bill Barth
    Jul 6, 2015 at 15:37

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