I found an open-source project that is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. (attribution, non-commercial, same license for derivatives) I really like what it does, but I'll have to modify it a bit to fit my goals.

Not sure how much of this paragraph is relevant, but it's an electronic circuit that uses the wrong shape board for what I'm doing, so I'll need to rearrange the same parts to make it fit around my other stuff while keeping the same connections between them. I'll also remove some auxiliary features that I don't need and add some that I do, but the core functionality is unchanged, including the software/firmware for one of the chips that does that core function.

None of that is a problem, as I understand, as a hobbyist and no more. And if I were to publish my version, I'd have to use the same license and refer back to the original. That's fine too...as a hobbyist and no more.

But I also see the potential to produce and sell copies of my finished product that includes (among many other things) the core functionality of that CC-NC project. So how far does the "non-commercial" restriction reach? And what do I need to do now, before I start, to avoid violating it?

  • Does it make a difference whether I copy the original files and modify them, vs. re-creating my version from scratch having seen and understood the original?
  • What about permanently embedding it, vs. keeping it modular/removable?
    (The original can't be made to fit if I wanted to. It must be my version or equivalent.)
  • This original does not offer a manufactured version. The expectation is that a user will take the design files and send them to their favorite manufacturer, which would be grossly unreasonable for my customers to do. So even if I were to release my derivative version per the original license, I would still have to include the manufacturing step on my side of the deal.
    Does ownership make it okay to sell my version as a manufactured product? I understand that my design files would have to be publicly available under CC BY-NC-SA per the original license that I received it under, but I own this derivative version and can therefore do what I want with it, including what would otherwise violate the license if I didn't own it. Is that true?
    (I'd be okay with my design files being public like that; a few people might make their own instead of buying from me, but not many. And I'd be interested to see what derivatives they come up with too!)

1 Answer 1


CC’s NonCommercial (NC) licenses prohibit uses that are “primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or monetary compensation.”

(From the link in your link)

If you use the design (or derivatives thereof) to make money, you are violating the licence. Similarly, using them in such a way is highly unlikely to be fair-use. Therefore, everything you propose is copyright violation.

You can approach the author and negotiate a commercial licence.

As an aside, there is no copyright in manufactured objects built from copyright plans (except for buildings and sculptures) so selling a manufactured product is not copyright violation. However, in order to do so, you needed to make a copy (and a derivative work) and that is copyright violation.

  • Obvious (to me) follow-up question: Given that there have been copyright suits for music, where the defendant claimed originality but had heard the plaintiff's work before making the claimed infringement, could the same apply here? If so, then it would seem like a liability to educate yourself by studying examples, because anything you might do is probably covered by a non-commercial license that you've probably seen before, whether you explicitly remember it or not. So where is that boundary?
    – AaronD
    Aug 22, 2021 at 0:26
  • @AaronD yes it could
    – Dale M
    Aug 22, 2021 at 1:49
  • So, just to make sure I have the logical steps correct: If I make a derivative of an NC-SA licensed work, then my derivative is forced by the SA part to also have an NC license, and that forced NC trumps my ownership of the derivative? So that someone else is now controlling my use of what *I* own? Or am I still missing a nuance somewhere?
    – AaronD
    Aug 24, 2021 at 5:08
  • @AaronD no, that's about right. But you have to remember that you were only allowed to create the derivative work subject to agreeing to that condition.
    – Dale M
    Aug 24, 2021 at 5:40
  • 1
    Thus, the parts that are unchanged from an original work are still owned by that person and still have that person's license attached to them. The parts that I did are mine and I can do what I want with those. But I can't sell the complete project, not because someone else controls what *I* own, but because I don't actually own all of it.
    – AaronD
    Aug 24, 2021 at 15:49

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