I would like to create a sculpture, related to science and technology, using engraved diagrams of physical processes on the surface. Some of these diagrams I will produce myself, many are in the Public Domain, but some are available under the CC BY-SA license. My plan was to simplify them to some degree before engraving on the sculpture. I would also produce a freely available PDF document providing all of the attributions and hyperlinks to satisfy the license conditions, as well as guiding the viewer/reader to more information about the depicted subject.

One problem is that many of these processes (i.e. chemical reactions, energy levels etc.) are very fundamental and the available diagrams succinctly describe the process. An attempt by me to produce my own version from scratch would result in an almost identical diagram. This brings the spectre of plagiarism were I to try producing and using "My own" version of the diagram and still hyperlinking to Wikipedia pages, where not only is the relevant, easily understood information on the process but also the "original" diagram.

The CC BY-SA license allows "Commercial Use" but am I going to run into a copyright stumbling block here if I use these diagrams and try to sell the sculpture? Would the "ShareAlike" clause only apply to my simplified versions of the diagrams or the sculpture itself?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

1 Answer 1


First off, you have to ask questions about plagiarism on Academia SE, because plagiarism and copyright infringement are only marginally related. Second, facts cannot be protected by copyright, only created items can be. In the realm of science, this means that you are free to create an embodiment of a chemical or (I think) structural formula, or a model of an atom – let's say as a drawing – and to the extent that the item you create resembles something that someone else created, there isn't necessarily any copying, rather the similarity derives from the limited nature of possible expressions of the underlying fact. A work that used miniature mice for carbon and miniature flees for hydrogen would be a creative (thus protectable) work. The idea of replacing letters with pictures is not protectable, but some particular arrangement of pictures could be.

Assuming that you are actually creating a derivative work and not just getting an inspiration from a creative work, then you can create such a derivative work if the original has a CC BY-SA license. You must give attribution to the original, i.e. you must do this. In producing your work, presumably the first step is to modify the original drawing. You can do this, as long as you comply with the "BY" condition (carry forward copyright-related information). You can sell your drawings, as long as those copies also have the BY info (and you don't restrict the original permission). You can also use those drawings as the basis for creating a sculpture (which preserves the BY info) and you can sell them.

The most significant issue that you'd face in creating a sculpture is complying with the BY conditions. They say

You may satisfy the conditions in Section 3(a)(1) in any reasonable manner based on the medium, means, and context in which You Share the Licensed Material. For example, it may be reasonable to satisfy the conditions by providing a URI or hyperlink to a resource that includes the required information.

So you don't have to chisel the entire load of information into the work, but at least a link to a permanent URL that gives that information does have to be written in stone, or whatever the medium is.

  • It wouldn't have to be written in stone if it is not reasonable to do so (e.g. if it'd hurt the artistic merit of the work). For example, many PCB open hardware designs have attribution on the silk screen layer that you can just clean off with a solvent, rather than etched into the copper.
    – wizzwizz4
    Nov 3, 2022 at 22:08

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