Wikipedia text, Creative Commons licenses and #HummingbirdGate

Woolworths Hummingbird Scatter Cushion - licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Woolworths Hummingbird Scatter Cushion – licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

One of the concerns about Woolworths’ hummingbird scatter cushions is that the retailer used text from a Wikipedia article about hummingbirds as a background to the hummingbird image which attracted most of the attention in the controversy which raged over the weekend. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post –

As Mr Scott pointed out, this leaves the issue of Woolworths’ use of Wikipedia’s text without complying with the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license which governs Wikipedia content use. This license requires Woolworths to do a few things in order to comply with the license which include –

  • correctly attributing the Wikipedia article the text was drawn from; and, more significantly,
  • licensing the Woolworths design “under the same, similar or a compatible license”.

Woolworths spoke to its lawyer and tweeted the following in response to a query from @WikiAfrica:


Unfortunately the lawyer Woolworths spoke to missed the real issue. This isn’t about Wikipedia owning the Woolworths design. Wikipedia doesn’t even claim ownership of the content on its site, it is all about licensing the content and complying with the relevant Creative Commons license conditions. In this case, we’re talking about the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

I wrote about a terrific guide to Creative Commons licenses which Ars Technica published a couple years ago and, instead of repeating what they have already written, take a look at the guide instead. The guide is titled “Creative Commons images and you: a quick guide for image users“. The key license element is the ShareAlike license element which Ars describes as follows:

The “Share Alike” attribute is intended to mimic the function of the GNU Public Licence’s “copyleft” provision, and it stipulates that anyone who creates a derivative work has to license that work under the same Creative Commons license that you used for your original work.

Because this particular clause matters only to those who plan to make new, derivative works based on Creative Commons-licensed content, it’s generally not that important for publishers, advertisers, and most end-users.

What this means is that the Woolies design, as a derivative of the Wikipedia article because it incorporates the text (the license uses the term “Adaptation” which is basically a work based on another work covered by the license), has to be licensed under the same license (I originally read a description of the license as permitting a similar license but the CC version of the overview specifies the same license). To comply with the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license attaching to the Wikipedia source text, Woolworths will have to license its design under the same license. It would also have to attribute the source of the text which is easy enough to do (the Ars guide has a great description of this process too although implementing that practically may be a little challenging just from a logistical perspective).

Of course licensing the Woolies design under a CC license has its own challenges which depend partly on the source license for other design elements (for example, the hummingbird image) and Woolies’ attitude towards releasing its design into the Commons for others to use under the license. Other than that, this is a pretty easy issue to fix.


p>The big takeaway here is to pay attention to content licensing issues when sourcing material for your products. Sourcing material from Wikipedia is great, just comply with the license requirements. There is a wealth of Creative Commons licensed content out there which is terrific. Using that stuff requires a different mindset to the usual content licensing approach but the opportunities are inspiring.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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