Copyright of MediaWiki screenshots

This whole document and every sentence of it do not constitute legal advice and contain no claim about expertise in legal affairs. It is specifically declared that any opinions about legal matters contained here is most probably totally incorrect either because it was not written by experts or because it was a volunteering effort with no real attempt to produce any kind of useful advice, and therefore anything contained in this page is provided "as is" and you use it at your own risk.

This page is a collaborative essay. It was written by a single author, but you are welcome to contribute to it, so don't be afraid to be bold and give us your thoughts as well (this doesn't mean that the original author necessarily agrees with your modifications).

Recently it came to the original author of this page's attention that it is possible that a software screenshot can be considered a copyrighted work. If that's true then it would be a good idea to think about what this means for screenshots of MediaWiki wikis. The purpose of this page, therefore, is to examine questions regarding the copyright of screenshots showing MediaWiki's user interface.

The notion of copyrightability of screenshots is not totally foreign, see w:en:Screenshot#Copyright_issues and

MediaWiki is covered by the GPL version 2 or later version licence, which says:

  • A: "Activities other than copying, distribution and modification are not covered by this License; they are outside its scope."
  • B: ..."the output from the Program is covered only if its contents constitute a work based on the Program"

If sentence B does not apply to the program, then sentence A probably applies, which would probably mean that screenshots are outside the scope of the GPL and are therefore within the scope of the copyright law, which if it recognises copyrightability in screenshots then can be managed with screenshot-specific licences granted by the copyright holders.

If the copyright law recognises copyrightability in screenshots, then in some legal systems these copyrights may be balanced by fair use, fair dealing, or right to quote laws. However, it would be a good idea not to rely on such laws and instead have a clear screenshot licence by the copyright holders.

If sentence B applies, then the screenshot must probably be licensed under the same licence as the software, which means that website users must licence their screenshots under the GPL and not some other licence such as Creative Commons Attribution or public domain.

Whether sentence B applies has much to do with MediaWiki's skins: obviously the skins, including MonoBook, are parts of MediaWiki. Much of the output of MediaWiki on screen is a combination of one of its skins plus your wiki's content. Therefore one could, perhaps, argue that sentence B may apply, because your screenshot may contain icons, text, menu items, visual elements, and creativity associated with MediaWiki's skins. Because MediaWiki's skins are under the GPL, this means that you have to look in the GPL to learn what you can do with your wiki's screenshots.

GPL is a copyleft licence, which means it demands derivative works to be licensed under the GPL as well, except if the original work's copyright holder gives other permission. Assuming you have no other permission and also assuming that a screenshot can be viewed as a derivative work, then it could be argued, perhaps, that your wiki's screenshots should fall under the GPL as derivative works. (however this idea is not based on a thorough reading of GPL and I could be wrong)

A proposal for a screenshot licence


For the purposes of this section, we will assume that copyright law does grant copyright protection to screenshots, that sentence B does hold, that GPL does treat screenshots are derivative works, and that screenshots of MediaWiki therefore must be under the GPL.

Assuming the above, it can be argued that GPL could in some cases be considered a bad licence for screenshots, especially regarding its requirement to include a copy of the licence with all copies of the derivative works. Furthermore, it could present problems for projects that work under other licences that could not accept GPLed screenshots uploaded (for example, and assuming the understanding of the writer is correct -which may not necessarily be-, if I run a wiki using MediaWiki but its contents are under the CC BY-SA licence, and I want to include a screenshot of my wiki on it, and my wiki's upload policy is to require all uploaded images to be CC BY-SA as well, then I cannot upload my screenshot because it's GPL and not CC BY-SA, even though the spirit of both licences is very similar!).

Furthermore, GPL can make it difficult to exercise free speech rights or even do one's work: if I want to communicate to another human being what I see on my monitor while browsing a MediaWiki-based site, then before doing so I have to read the GPL licence and include a copy of it with my screenshot, which is just too much work to do for a simple screenshot. And if I want to find out how my wiki site looks like in a variety of browsers and I want to include screenshots in a report to be published on my wiki, it has to be under the GPL, but if I want my wiki to include only content under a different licence then I cannot do so.

Of course, in practice, some people probably just follow the spirit of the GPL and free software rather than the letter of it or one's own interpretations of it, and trust that we are a community of people believing that information must be free and that the GPL is just an instrument to prevent greedy people outside our community (or bad members of our community) from exclusively appropriating our free work. These people would probably just take a screenshot and claim that it is public domain, CC BY, or under other licence, and hope that their actions are not seen as appropriation. However, some people may prefer to be totally certain that what they do will never be objected by anyone, and these people may find it very hard to take screenshots of their wikis under this interpretation.

Therefore, it is suggested to make the life easier for people wanting to be assured about what their rights are regarding their screenshots showing bits of MediaWiki's skins and rendering. We can do so if people who participate in MediaWiki development make a discussion about what they believe is acceptable usage of screenshots containing parts of MediaWiki's user interface.

It is possible that different MediaWiki copyright holders may have different ideas about screenshots, or in some cases they may have never thought about this issue before. Possibly we can categorise the various ideas one can have on this issue in the following broad categories:

  • If the software is GPL, all screenshots of it must be GPL
  • The software can be GPL, but screenshots of it can be licensed by their creator under any terms (including public domain) as a whole screenshots, but if an identifiable user interface element is cropped out from the screenshot (by the user or another person) then it must be considered GPLed; i.e. individual user interface elements are always GPLed (e.g. icons), but a screenshot as a whole can be under another licence, but the moment someone separates an individual user interface element from the screenshot then standard GPL applies. (I have no idea whether this makes any sense per the wording of the GPL or any law, it's just an idea)
  • The user must have unlimited freedom to create/use/distribute screenshots in any way and any licence they want

(if you can think of other possibilities, include them above)



Raw discussion at Talk:Copyright of MediaWiki screenshots. This page may be better utilised as a place to post distillations/insights/summaries from the discussion to help users decide what they can do with their screenshots.