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I've noticed that some users on Worldbuilding Stack Exchange include images and text in their posts, either questions or answers, that are sourced from elsewhere and are not their own work.

As a moderator, I've been required to handle copyright claims against users on this site who have used images and text generated by others and have claimed them as their own work.

What is required to properly use the work of others in our posts without violating copyright?

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3 Answers 3

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What does the law say?

This is a dog damn mess 💀🐶. First, any picture you publish is both dependent on the rules and licensing of Stack-Exchange and the site you take or publish it on. In the case of pictures this generally means you need to abide by Imgur's rules, since copy-pasting the picture directly uploads to it.

On top of that, you have to consider whether you have enough rights to said picture, which implies many other sub-topics. In France for instance, you have to get the written agreement of any non-public person to have their image published if they happen to appear on a photo... When they're not part of a crowd. And when they're clearly distinguishable. And you need the agreement of the photograph, too. And the agreement would be only valid for usage on WB:SE. In the U.S. there is at the very least the Fair Use, and I won't be surprised to see many other edge cases that can be as convenient as they are complicated.

But supposing you have all the rights outside Worldbuilding Stack-Exchange to publish it, you need to make proper attribution, as it is required by CC BY SA 4.0, the current license any content is posted here under. Missing attributions is a violation of the license.

What do I say?

Now that the theory is out, let's get into the real-world 🌎. As you noticed, I've made a whole speech about ownership before attributing it. First because that's necessary to understand why you need to do so, but also to make you understand that copyright, copyleft and copytheft are never easy topics to deal with. And contrary to what some of the Meta's meta posts say, plagiarism is strongly linked to copyright, even in the context of Stack-Exchange only. By taking content under CC-BY-SA 4.0 without attributing it, you breach this license's conditions of use. Worse, if you take content outside WB:SE from someone without their permission, this can lead to more serious troubles both for the user and Stack-Exchange in general.

If you are the one taking content from others

If you don't know enough about law, just keep yourself to your own content, or content either under open licenses or in the public domain (⚠️ : Being economically free does not always mean open license!). If there's nothing explicit about the license, assume you don't have the right.

As soon as you reuse content which is not yours, give at the very least a link to the source and its name. Ideally, add the author's name if it is known, and ultra-ideally add the license used1. It will not only make you look more amenable to the author and law in general2, it's an actual professional practice.

My way of doing it is to put a description right under the content I take from ( [space] twice + [enter] once), then put a short description and the attribution. You can make it smaller by putting it between "<sub></sub>" tags. Here's one I made for instance :

[![A drawing of the Catocala electa moth][1]][1]  ---> 2 blanks here
<sup>One of my favorite Moths. Public domain, [from Wikimedia Commons][2]</sup>

  [1]: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/72/Catocala_electa_par_Nemos.jpg/320px-Catocala_electa_par_Nemos.jpg
  [2]: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Catocala_electa_par_Nemos.jpg

This gives :

A drawing of the Catocala electa moth
One of my favorite Moths. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

If you review content posted by another

I've already delved into the topic of ownership in another question, and bits of it applies quite well here :

But worse, noone could prove who catched one of them first.

Finding the true owner of some content is generally painful without any link to the source. Yes, there are search engines to backtrack pictures, people are often lazy and take the first result on the web and so on. But what makes you think user X on Devil-ant-art.com is not user Y on WB:SE? And how long did you take to find the source, when all that time could be spent elsewhere reviewing, answering and improving questions?

It is not our legal responsibility to make others respect it. It is the responsibility of the intellectual property owner and Stack-Exchange to take action when illegal stuff happens like breaching NDAs or infringing copyright.

As "basic" users of this site, we're only responsible of what we post, not the other's. Yes, it will be detrimental to our experience on this site if Stack-Exchange is sued for breaking copyrights, but we're not an employee of SE. You don't have to check that if you don't want 🐦. For moderators it's certainly more complex as usual, but a good look at your specific rules should help out. If not, you really need to clear out this fog ASAP.

You can (ideally should) warn the content owner of potential infringements so they can take appropriate measures -like contacting SE's designated agent- if they wish so. You can warn the SE company of possible troubles, so they can take preemptive measures if that's clear and needed. You can and should also keep people from raising obvious red flags for their own sake, both to learn worldbuilding and to be friendly. But closing and/or deleting in SE's stead? It's not our job, since it's impossible to know at all whether the user is the actual owner. We're just for most anonymous pals on the internet who can only reasonably argue they're who they are by telling their "proofs" are the truth. It's a very weak argument called circular reasoning.

And that part is basically what I advise. Any very obvious illegal content (watermarked picture, etc.) : Don't attribute but warn of potential copyright troubles to the user and Stack-Exchange. Dubious content? Ask for the source even if only for the sake of being professional and respectful. That's the gist for users who are not moderators. The ones who can answer the best and quickest where some content is coming from are the ones who reposted it and the original owner. Since we generally don't know the owner, we'll have to make up with the supposed good willingness of the one who reposted it.

For moderators, I am just not able to tell you your obligations. My intuition tells me you'll have to put down non-attributed content instead of kindly asking where it comes from. But please, whatever you have to do, don't do like other social websites. If you can avoid turning this attribution thing into a (mindless) copyright witch hunt to the detriment of everything else... You'll have my tanky thanks.


1 : Let's be honest here though, I doubt anyone will care if you forget to add the exact license. But if you think of adding it every time, it's great because it means you are sure you have the rights to it. If you happen to be wrong, you give proof you tried to be in the clear.
2 : Let's recall that a good chunk of legal issues are solved out of court. Any sign of kindness and honesty helps in that regard.

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    $\begingroup$ We're not going around on a copyright witch-hunt. This whole thread started because someone found their work on WB.SE being claimed as a WB.SE user's work, proved their ownership, and asked for it to be dealt with. That's outright plagiarism, not just an attribution error. Fortunately the matter was dealt with without legal action. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild Mod
    Sep 18, 2023 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild I noticed that if we talk about a recently edited query about a sci-fi weapon picture. Still, it's a very easy road to take and I want to recall that; From what I witnessed, copyright takedowns are easily exploitable because of the fear of the court, even if the reasons behind are illigetimate (eg.: Blackmailing like with Tunic's music composer, trying to remove content we don't like, ...). I really wish that it doesn't happen here, too. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2023 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ Until SE tells us mods otherwise, unless we receive a copyright claim, we're not going to do anything. We're not paid to do this, and it's not our job to police copyright for others. If something comes up, mods can add attribution if sufficient evidence is provided, otherwise the copyright holder can file a DMCA takedown if they choose. Nothing is going to change unless someone makes a fuss. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild Mod
    Sep 18, 2023 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Then let's just hope together that SE doesn't try to force your hand too often 🦋. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2023 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild: If I were you I would rush to delete those rash comments. You have basically stated that you, a moderator of this web site, will not act against a copyright infringement although you have knowledge about it. I'm not an American, but as far as I understand a DMCA is needed only if the publisher does not know that a work published in their publication is infringing. If you know and still publish it, well... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 18, 2023 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP I believe that since mods are not employees (cf. here), they're not really legally bindable to that, although this may cause them to receive... "proper guidance" from SE. That's what I would worry about the most. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2023 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena: I am not privy to the agreements between Stack Exchange Inc. and them, but moderators are acting as agents of Stack Exchange Inc. Moreover, they are acting as agents of a for-profit corporation worldwide, and thus have taken on responsibilities which may be very much beyond what they expect in the American customary judicial system. I wouldn't know, I'm not a lawyer and definitely totally ignorant of how this works in various jurisdictions around the world. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 18, 2023 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I meant that if we see it or hear about it, we'll deal with it, not that we won't deal with it unless we're asked to. But, since we're unpaid, we're not going to crawl the site looking for it either. And copyright is sufficiently iffy that who knows what we're seeing. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild Mod
    Sep 19, 2023 at 0:14
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Worldbuilding SE has a help page that spells out the requirements for using the work of others in their posts:

https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/help/referencing

It is required that users of this site include proper attribution when referencing or including copyrighted material in their posts. Failure to do so could result in suspension from the site or legal action being taken against the user by the copyright holder.

Material posted in violation of copyright law may be the subject of a DMCA Takedown.

While I have not heard of legal action being taken against a Stack Exchange user for copyright violations, that does not mean that it is not possible. It would be entirely up to the copyright owner if they wanted to initiate legal proceedings.

I would hate to hear of a WB.SE user getting into trouble with the law for what may be an innocent mistake.

As for image attribution, pending a possible edit of the help/referencing page, the word of SE's community support team is:

When it comes to using images on our network, we generally recommend the following guidelines:

  • Whenever possible, it's best to use images that you have created yourself or have explicit permission to use. This ensures there are no attribution requirements.

  • Images in the public domain do not require attribution, as they are considered free for public use. You can often find specialized public domain images.

  • If you use an image under a Creative Commons license, be sure to follow the specific requirements of that license. Some CC licenses require attribution, while others do not.

  • If you purchase or use images from stock photo websites, they usually come with licensing terms. Make sure to adhere to the terms and provide any necessary attribution if required.

  • When attributing images, follow the format specified by the image's creator or the licensing terms. This typically includes the name of the author or source, the image title, and a link to the source if available.

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    $\begingroup$ No, attribution is not enough, although it may be necessary. What is needed is a license to use the material in a work licensed CC-BY-SA. If the author of the post does not have a license to use the material, then they do not have a license to use the material. attribution or no attribution. If the license requires attribution, then attribution is required. If the license does not require attribution, then attribution is optional but still highly recommended as a courtesy to the author of the incorporated work, and, most importantly, to the readers. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 14, 2023 at 14:09
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Yes


... but how do we do it?


To clarify: As far as attributing images goes, there isn't anything specific in that help reference to guide users as to what SE expects for image attribution. Before either we as a community or SE as a corporation go threatening law suits or hinting at legal action or banishment from the community against people, perhaps something should be done to make clear how to handle the proper attribution of non-text sources?


Take the following image for example. It is apparently a generic prop type image. It comes from a US government website. The government website doesn't offer any attribution information.

https://www.copyright.gov/fair-use/


I have always considered it sufficient to put a link to the website where I found the image in the file description field. The information is easily discoverable with inspect element by anyone who is interested. But is this what SE is talking about? Now the further question arises: what does SE reasonably expect for a possibly anonymous image of this sort? Are they seriously expecting us to try and find out who the original artist is for that scale of justice image? Even the US government doesn't offer any attribution information. What exactly are SE's guidelines here?


This is a serious question and I'm not ragging on you Monty, but it's really quite rich for SE to threaten people with legal action, regardless of that action's source, without even putting in place a clear method for attribution! I know that when the shit hits the fan, they'll just hide behind the old "we're just the platform!" defense, but morally and ethically they do share culpability. So: what is WB.SE's position on the matter of proper image attribution?

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  • $\begingroup$ I didn't say that it was SE that was threatening legal action, I actually meant that it might be the copyright owner. The whole purpose of this thread is so that I don't have to write users up over copyright strikes brought to my attention by irate copyright holders again. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild Mod
    Sep 13, 2023 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ As to how: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/help/referencing $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild Mod
    Sep 13, 2023 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ If you insert a link that points to the image, rather than to an imgur copy of the image, that's the attribution right there. The image description is really only visible to those who can edit the post or maybe have a screen reader. Otherwise, add the link or other attribution in text. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild Mod
    Sep 13, 2023 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ Hidden things are hidden. The alternative text of an image is hidden. Being hidden, it is not visible. Being not visible, it is as if it wasn't there. What is needed is actual visible text specifying the license under which the image etc. is used, and, if the license requires it, proper attribution. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 14, 2023 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild --- That was my point: that link doesn't provide what SE expects for images, only text. Do they have a protocol for image attribution? If not, they need to add it. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Sep 16, 2023 at 4:36
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Yes, it looks like we will have to have a word with SE about that help page. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild Mod
    Sep 16, 2023 at 5:02
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild --- Thank you Monty! All I'm asking for is clarification and a clear protocol! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Sep 16, 2023 at 5:04
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Have a look at my edited answer. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild Mod
    Sep 19, 2023 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild --- I look forward to seeing the eventual edit to the help page! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Sep 19, 2023 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas So do I... but I won't hold my breath. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild Mod
    Sep 19, 2023 at 16:03

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