I am working on a lager poster about science which will be on display in a museum and may be made available online. I intend to compile it using images from different sources. Some are own work, some are Wikimedia Common (Public domain or Creative Commons), others may be plots/graphics from (mostly historic) journal articles (they are usually not open access).

To my understanding, the use of these sources for non-profit/academic purposes is free if attributed correctly. However, I am unsure about the consequences of compiling or slightly modifying these works. Journals may have their own license policies but my understanding is that reuse for such purposes is generally accepted. In addition plots which represent measured data may not be protected, it seems.

Here are some of my concerns:

Using a Creative Commons image may require me to publish the whole work under the same Creative Commons license. I suppose that this is not ok with licenses/copyright policies that apply for plots or graphics from journal articles?

The different images should fit in the design of the whole. In order to achieve this I may need to make minor changes, like cropping the image or changing the background color. Will such modifications be ok with Public Domain licensed images and the ones from journals?

May the license of the whole work be determined by the fact that I am working for a public university (even though this sort of work is probably not described in my work contract, so it could be interpreted as work which I do in my spare time)?

Generally, are there some good online resources which explain the license issues and attribution of images for this kind of work?

Here are some links I know:




  • 1
    This may be a better fit on the Law SE, but I'm not 100% sure on that. My reasoning is that the concern here is less about academia and more about legal matters that don't pertain to academia specifically.
    – tonysdg
    Dec 11, 2015 at 12:41
  • I am not sure. It may be an issue with which lawyers are not concerned so often, because profit organisations will buy the images. Academics, in my experience, mostly ignore these issues, but in this case the public visibility may be higher. Still, for me, it is mainly about how I correctly credit scientific and other work.
    – highsciguy
    Dec 11, 2015 at 12:59
  • I recommend you ask this, or at least part of it, on Open Source Stack exchange: opensource.stackexchange.com. This site is not limited to software; questions about use of an open license such as Creative Commons for other types of content are on topic there.
    – user24098
    Dec 11, 2015 at 14:35
  • 2
    "Using a Creative Commons image may require me to publish the whole work under the same Creative Commons license." - this is definitely not the case. Individually CC-licensed works can be used in a non-CC-licensed compilation/collection, so long as the licenses for the individual works are clearly indicated Dec 11, 2015 at 14:39
  • @Andrew Ok, that's useful. Do you have a reference that supports this?
    – highsciguy
    Dec 11, 2015 at 15:32

1 Answer 1


There's a lot of confusion around this sort of thing in academic circles, because academics have been trained heavily about attribution, but attribution is mostly orthogonal to copyright. There is no general right to use things for academic/non-profit purposes, unless copyright law in your country happens to include "fair use" or similar provisions. They vary from country to country so I can't advise on them.

Some specifics, based on what you asked:

  • Something in the public domain can be used however you like, as the author has relinquished all copyright claims and "gifted" the work to the public. Thus you can use it, modify it, etc. However, do not assume (as some do) that anything you see online is public domain. It's probably best to assume that something isn't unless you see a statement to that effect.

  • Something with a creative commons licence can be used according to the terms of that licence. The various varieties are quite self-explanatory. All will allow you to reuse the work for non-commercial purposes, but not all allow you to modify it (the "no derivatives" variants).

  • Something without any stated licence or that expressly reserves rights should not be used without permission - except possibly as provided for by any "fair use" style provisions that your country may have.

Generally the licence for your work need not be controlled by the works that it contains - "viral" or "copyleft" terms such as those of the GPL are not common outside of software licencing. However, if you choose a licence more permissive than that of works that your document contains, you should make it clear that it does not apply to (eg) those figures.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice; any of the above may be wrong in your, or any other, jurisdiction!

  • Thanks! Some of you comments are very helpful. A very important issue for me is what's with figures/plots in historic journal articles. Are they always public domain, do they become public domain after certain time or can they only be used under fair use conditions?
    – highsciguy
    Dec 13, 2015 at 20:05
  • @highsciguy certainly not always PD. They may become PD after a certain time, but this depends on local laws.
    – Flyto
    Dec 13, 2015 at 20:33

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