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Just what does the SA mean?

Genealogy friend and colleague Yvette Hoitink writes a terrific blog about research in The Netherlands. If you have Dutch ancestors and haven’t found the blog yet, you really need to check out Dutch Genealogy — and you should read it even if you don’t have Dutch ancestors since some of the methodology tips are spot on.

But Yvette came across a question the other day that she didn’t have an easy answer to, so she brought it to The Legal Genealogist:

In the Netherlands, there are several institutions that make their photo collections available online under a Creative-Commons-Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC-BY-SA). I use CC-BY-SA photos on my Dutch Genealogy blog all the time, and one of my readers challenged whether that was an acceptable use, since my blog is commercial and reserves copyrights.

We were discussing how you would be allowed to use a photo with a CC-BY-SA license:

• If you use the photograph in a blog post, are you required to make the whole blog post (or even the whole blog or website) available under a CC-BY-SA license?

• Can you use the photograph in a book that you sell for profit? My discussion partner said no, because selling books isn’t “sharing alike.”

In both cases, I say that the license only applies to the photo. If your blog post or book makes it clear that the photo is available under CC-BY-SA license, that doesn’t mean you have to make the surrounding work (post/book) available under a CC-BY-SA license as well. Also, CC-BY-SA does not prohibit commercial use, there is a special “NC” flavor of the license for that, which the institute chose not to use. So there is nothing wrong with me using the photo in a commercial publication, as long as I make it clear that the photo is available under that CC-BY-SA license.

BTW, the organizations whose photos I use are happy with the way I use their photos and are glad to see them used, which is the reason they made them available under this license in the first place. So I’m not facing legal problems, but would like to know where I stand anyway. I would like to know if I’m right.

Easy answer:

Yvette is right.


Now… let’s back up and make sure we’re all on the same track.

Let’s talk first about Creative Commons — “a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.” For a content producer, Creative Commons offers “free, easy-to-use copyright licenses (that) provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use … creative work — on conditions …. CC licenses … easily change … copyright terms from the default of ‘all rights reserved’ to ‘some rights reserved.’” For a content user, “there is a giant pool of CC-licensed creativity available… There are hundreds of millions of works — from songs and videos to scientific and academic material — available to the public for free and legal use under the terms of our copyright licenses, with more being contributed every day.”1

The most critical thing to understand is that “Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable (content producers) to modify … copyright terms to best suit (their) needs.”2

There are a lot of different elements to Creative Commons licensing. They range from effectively free use with no limits at all — the CC0 license3 — to the CC BY-NC-ND license — under which the user must give attribution to the creator (BY), may not use the work for commercial purposes (NC) and may not make any alterations to or changes in the content (ND).4

The particular license term Yvette is asking about comes into play if the content creator will allow a user to adapt the work to fit the user’s needs (so it wouldn’t have the ND designation) but then requires the user to let anybody else user the newly-altered work on the same terms. That’s the SA — ShareAlike — element.

So… what exactly does that mean?

And the Creative Commons website itself tells us. If a work such as an image is ShareAlike, then “If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original” and “You may not apply legal terms or technological measures that legally restrict others from doing anything the license permits.”5

The operative language here is “you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original” — a clear reference to the end product after the changes you made to the original item you’re using. Not the whole product in which you used the item — just the item itself.

If anybody had any doubts about that, there’s a much longer version of the license set out at the Creative Commons website in an area called Legal Code. It defines the scope of the license to the Licensed Material (defined as “the artistic or literary work, database, or other material to which the Licensor applied this (Creative Commons) License”) and the obligation of the user to give anybody else the same Licensed Rights (defined as “Rights that apply to Your use of the Licensed Material”). And the only thing the user can’t do is add any other limits on using the licensed materials.6

So… Yvette has a blog, and decides to include a photo that’s got a CC-BY-SA license on it. She crops it, changes it color tones, zings it up a little in post-processing, and uses it to illustrate a blog post, citing the CC-BY-SA license. Anybody else can use that changed, modified, post-processed image — and can make changes of their own too. And that anybody else also has to cite that CC-BY-SA license, opening the door to anybody else — and so it goes.

But the license only applies to the photo. It doesn’t attach to the container in which the photo is placed — the blog itself or even tbe individual blog post.

Pretty neat, huh? If you’re a content producer or a content user, Creative Commons is a great way to go.


  1. About,” Creative Commons ( : accessed 29 Nov 2015).
  2. Ibid.
  3. See “Our Public Domain Tools: CC0,” Creative Commons ( : accessed 29 Nov 2015).
  4. See ibid., “Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).
  5. See ibid., “Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).”
  6. See ibid., “Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.”
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