Bruce Lawson's personal site

Creative Commons Share Alike, my bum

As part of tarting up Introducing HTML5 for its second edition, I’m discussing the very useful -moz-ui-invalid pseudo-class. The documentation at Mozila Developer Centre is a paragon of clarity and succinctness, so much so that my instinct is to quote the 4 lines “The result is that .. unchanged valid value” with attribution, rather than rephrase it and reduce its clarity.

However, the license for that page is CC Share Alike:

Share Alike If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.

Now, I don’t know whether quoting within a chapter is “building upon” or not. I can’t release the book under a similar license as neither Remy nor I own the intellectual property (we tried to persuade the publishers to release it but they were… somewhat antipathetic (ahem) to that idea).

Twitter chums advised that quoting 4 lines was OK as “fair use”. But I’m in the UK and as far as I can tell, we don’t have that concept here. Wikipedia says of UK “fair dealing”:

Under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA), fair dealing is limited to the following purposes: research and private study (both must be non-commercial), criticism, review, and news reporting (sections 29, 30, 178). Although not actually defined as a fair dealing, incidental inclusion of a copyrighted work in an artistic work, sound recording, film, broadcast or cable programme doesn’t infringe copyright.

But our book is a commercial project. It’s not criticism, review or news.

So I’ve emailed the MDC to ask them to waive their rights. I’m writing this book as a private individual, and the derisory royalties that technical books produce don’t make me willing to accept personal legal risks: no way am I risking my house, which is the only thing of value I own. (Hiring a lawyer would use up all my royalties.)

This emphatically is not a criticism of Mozilla – they’ve always had an excellent track record of openness and I’m certain they’d be delighted to be quoted in a chapter that praises them.

It’s a criticism of UK copyright law and the Share Alike license which doesn’t define “build upon” or “non-commercial” in any useful way.

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13 Responses to “ Creative Commons Share Alike, my bum ”

Comment by Ivo


how about you add a footnote stating that these four lines are from X, and that these four lines are under Creative Commons? That way you don’t have to apply it to the whole of your book.


Comment by Bruce

That’s the trouble, Ivo.

“If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.”

Does the chapter I’m writing (which includes those 4 lines) “build upon” the quotation, and therefore must be distributed under the same/ similar license?

Comment by Dominykas

I doubt that MDC are actually in a position to waive anything – it’s the original authors that have contributed the lines under that license, so only they can give you any other license. Unless ofc by contributing to MDC an author has to contribute under something more than just CC-SA.

Either way, isn’t Wikipedia quoted time and again in anything that is published these days? And I’d consider GFDL a much stricter license with a much stricter copy-left clause.


Comment by André Luís


why do you think quoting, ie using an excerpt or a bigger work, is violating copyright? You know, there’s also a fair amount of things you can do under the “fair use”.

Unless you’re reproducing the entire work/article, then I’d think it’s easily argued as fair use. And the copyleft bit, the part where you’re supposed to share alike is only for derivative work… which that is not.

Now, the creative commons license is not an absolute, cover-all-scenarios thing. It only establishes an implicit framework of authorization to copy the entire work or use it to creating derivatives.

And note: creating derivatives is really well defined by creative commons in the extended version of the licenses.

You can *always* ask for permission and have the owner of the copyright authorize its use, regardless of the CC license.

I would recommend, though, to get a written permission. An email is enough.

Take a few minutes to read through this presentation I gave a few months ago. Hope it clears a bit of confusion:

Comment by André Luís


I have to apologize… I was in a hurry and rushed through the article to leave a comment. In the future, I’ll refrain from posting a comment without properly reading the article.

Yes, now I see you mentioned the fair dealings norm that exist in commonwealth states, including the UK. Fair use is somewhat more liberal and still limits a few uses… specially commercial.

However, like I said, in case of doubt always get written permission. Explicit trumps implicit authorization… even all rights reserved, actually, that’s how you get to use ©’ed stuff.

It’s not the end of the world, usually people who copyright such content are fairly liberal and have no problem in being cited in a book, even if it’s sold. Unless you’re using 90% of a 100 page article… 😉 Which fair dealings has to accomodate.

Now, about derivative works. Yes, it might seem somewhat vague, but not completely useless. Using a small excerpt (a paragraph) in a big work like in your case a *book* is hardly basing your work on theirs. It would silly to argue otherwise… It is but a drop in an ocean of words.

However, having written that, “abridgement” which is also a part of that clause, could be used to define your use of the work. Which should be considered a derivative.

So, I totally understand your “take no risks” approach. Get the written permission and go ahead. Note that they can still specify terms of use; like “use it but, please, credit us somewhere in the book.” That should be part of the written authorization.

Remember Jeremy’s story of the picture in the Iron Man movie? They still wanted his permission, even though the license allowed commercial use. Unfortunately, it’s a lawyer’s world…


Comment by Ben Barber

Hi Bruce!

The content on the MDC is available under CC BY-SA version 2.5 or greater. I think the full license for version 3 ( is clearer than version 2.5 regarding derivative works or adaptations.

The copyright protections for derivative works exist to preserve the copyright holder’s right to create and distribute copies of the original (even in another medium such as print), adapt the work for different mediums (such as film, song, etc.) or create translations of the original.

You aren’t adapting the content or creating a new work that’s derived from the original. You are reproducing a portion of the content verbatim, which is allowed by section 3.a in CC BY-SA version 3.

Regarding getting permission from Mozilla explicitly, I noticed on their copyright page that the “copyright for contributed materials remains with the author unless the author assigns it to someone else or the public domain.” If the author has not assigned copyright to the Mozilla Foundation, you would need written permission from the author.

I’m no lawyer, so obviously take my comments with a grain of salt. If you do get clarification from a lawyer, your publisher, or Mozilla, I’m interested to hear what it is.

Comment by Janet Swisher

Hi Bruce!

I wrote that text as a Mozilla employee, so the copyright belongs to Mozilla as a work-for-hire. I believe that you’ll be getting official permission to use it, shortly.

It’s not every day that my work is called “a paragon of clarity and succinctness”! Thanks for the compliment!

For future such situations, if your publishing house owns the IP for your book, then it’s in their interest to advise you about whether you’re violating someone’s copyright, and seek permissions. Talk to their legal department.

Comment by J. King

Fair dealing is quite liberal in Canada; I was not aware of the non-commercial research restrictions, which seem rather outmoded to me. Moreover, Canadian fair dealing also examines how much of a work was quoted; the four lines in question would doubtless be trivial.

It’s a shame you have to deal with such silliness…

Comment by Justin

Can you release the book and give the chapter away through another medium?

You’re still charging for the book as a product, but you’re giving away that Chapter under the same license.

Comment by Bruce

Thanks Mounir, and thanks Janet!

Janet, traditional tech publishing houses neatly pass on all risk to their authors (as well as most of the work, the marketing—almost everything except the money!) which is why I’m so circumspect.

I still wish that the CC licenses better defined “commercial” and “builds upon”.

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