As I understand, when I post something on Stack Overflow (or other Stack Exchange sites), I have copyright on the contents of the post and I've licensed significant redistribution and re-licensing rights to Stack Overflow.

Sometimes, answering a Stack Overflow question is as simple as quoting/paraphrasing a section from documentation or some other resource.

If I post an answer that contains nothing except paraphrased or lightly edited information directly from another source (and link to that source), am I in the wrong by granting redistribution rights on this content to Stack Overflow?

  • standing bounty offer to the first quote-only answer to my question. – Woodrow Barlow Mar 26 '20 at 15:57
  • For the 'quotes' you are talking about you could have also viewed the documentation of 'npm' or UNIX commands. There is only one reasonable way to install an npm package, for example, 'npm install -g NAME_OF_PACKAGE' is the only possible way to do that. – Brandin Mar 27 '20 at 8:53

Not very novel

What you are talking about is a derivative work. This is arguably the most famous example:

Copyright Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia

It's an interesting example because Leonardo da Vinci did not have copyright in the original but Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia do have copyright in the derivative. Even though the changes are physically small, they are enough.

A crucial factor in current legal analysis of derivative works is transformativeness, largely as a result of the Supreme Court's 1994 decision in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. The Court's opinion emphasized the importance of transformativeness in its fair use analysis of the parody of "Oh, Pretty Woman" involved in the Campbell case. In parody, as the Court explained, the transformativeness is the new insight that readers, listeners, or viewers gain from the parodic treatment of the original work. As the Court pointed out, the words of the parody "derisively demonstrat[e] how bland and banal the Orbison [Pretty Woman] song" is.

For an author to have copyright in the derivative they must:

  1. Meet the (low) threshold of originality for copyright to exist.
  2. Make their derivative lawfully - either because they have permission or because their use falls under an exception to copyright like fair use or fair dealing.

However, they do not have copyright in the original elements. For example, I could take the Mona Lisa and give her different clothes, a different background or a hat I will not be infringing their copyright. If I give her a different style of moustache?

However, there is an issue with "I have copyright on the contents of the post" when you don't. Even if your work is derivative, you do not have copyright in the original parts and do not have the right to licence them.

So, for example, this post is a derivative work of the Wikipedia page linked to above and I have copyright in my original contributions because:

  1. They meet the threshold of originality
  2. I have permission to make the derivative either through the Wikipedia licence or because my use is fair use.

I can give Stack Exchange a licence for my work but I cannot give them a licence for the original work including, for example, the image and quote above.

So, someone could quote my entire answer subject to the licence or fair work, but they couldn't copy just the image or quote.

  • 1
    Who owns derivative works that were created without permission of the original copyright holder? – Viktor Mar 27 '20 at 5:14

Sorry, I'll have to opt for a no-quotes answer. The question is, does your answer have the scintilla of creativity required for copyright protection? That creativity arises from identifying relevant text from elsewhere, deciding how much is relevant, eliminating superfluous verbiage, collecting a relevant set of such texts (assuming that the parts of an answer don't come just from one prior work), and arranging those pieces in an appropriate fashion. Your contribution is said organization of existing information, and that is what its protected by copyright (and is what is licensable).

Others may agree, and illustrate the point in a manner that entitles them to a bounty.


Basically nothing, most likely.

I am not a lawyer, but I think it's most likely that very little would need to be changed to be counted as "transformative", at least in America. Recently, in the case of Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad) vs Akilah Hughes, it was found that Benjamin's video "SJW Levels of Awareness" was transformative Fair Use, even though it was composed entirely of portions of Hughes' video "We Thought She Would Win" edited together and given a different title. That was because these curated selections, when combined with the different title, were sufficient for it to qualify as transformative criticism and thereby protected under Fair Use.

As a result, it's likely that a StackExchange answer would also qualify as being transformative in nature, even if it consisted entirely of a quotation from another source, because you're changing the purpose of that source text into an educational one. Whether such a post would meet the other criteria for Fair Use is another question, but since Fair Use is judged on a case-by-case basis, it's impossible to say without looking at a specific answer and the sources it's quoting.

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