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I stumbled upon a suggestion for an edit that only added a copyrighted image to an answer, presumably without the authors' consent.

I rejected the edit on this basis (as supposedly it would harm the website), but two other users approved it. As it has now being accepted, I no longer consider this specific case my problem, so my question is not meant to discuss it specifically.

However, after reading this other discussion, I wonder if I should just ignore this kind of situation or continue to reject this kind of edit in the future. Are there some guidelines about that?

I'm aware of other posts on the subject of copyrighted material, but my question is what I should do about suggested edits that possibly violate copyright, not about if I can include copyrighted material in my own answers and questions.

Thanks.

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    $\begingroup$ What sort of copyrighted image is it? Is it like a photocopy or is it an image that is available on the internet? Possibly it is sufficient to just add a reference to the creator? $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ Also, the solutions may diverge a bit depending on the situation. An edit with an additional image might be large, but possibly you could accept the edit with a re-edit removing the image or changing it to a different one. In other cases removing the image might mute the purpose of the suggested edit. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 10:28
  • $\begingroup$ I guess this question is about stats.stackexchange.com/a/58266 in that case I wonder whether the inclusion of such image is 'illegal'. It is just a simple diagram. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 11:07
  • $\begingroup$ @SextusEmpiricus The fact that an image is a diagram or is simple does not put it out the realm of copyright laws (e.g. see library.adler.edu/c.php?g=426074&p=3952708). But besides this specific case that I no longer consider my problem, my question is more general for future instances of the issue. $\endgroup$
    – J-J-J
    Commented May 13 at 11:16
  • $\begingroup$ I tend to redraw such simple image myself. Would that be also copyright infringement? I may have occasionally used images from others because I didn't think it was worth the effort to create the image myself. If the first case (redrawing yourself) is not copyright infringement, wouldn't the second case (directly copying) be neither infringement when the two are not distinguishable (e.g. they are simple outputs from a software like R or Excel). I thought that the main issue is whether or not you properly reference the source. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 11:29
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    $\begingroup$ I know two cases where I have been lazy and used figures from others. One example is here where I use a figure from Neyman and Pearson describing their famous lemma. Another example is here where I use a figure from Fisher describing least discriminant analysis. Is such use of images not right? It is possible to quote other people, I thought that such images would fall into this realm as well. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ @SextusEmpiricus Good question, I have no idea if redrawing the image would be a copyright infringement. Maybe that could be a question for meta.stackexchange.com, if it hasn't been already asked? Citing properly is not enough to get the right to publish without the consent of the authors, even if in general I guess we can count on the good will of authors not to take issue with a re-publication of their work without their prior consent. But an action being tolerated is different from an action being legal. Legally, images are often considered differently than text quotes. $\endgroup$
    – J-J-J
    Commented May 13 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ This is why I made a difference between a simple diagram or an artwork. It is possible to quote other people, even without consent. If it is a simple diagram (making the use within reasonable limit), then I thought this is regarded as a quote as well. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ @SextusEmpiricus Now, I think our discussion here in comments show that some guidelines from StackExchange would be useful here to clarify how to act. I think that such guidelines would be particularly useful, as laws may vary between countries (e.g. in the country where I reside, all established case laws on the subject say that the "right to quote" absolutely does not apply to images; but I understand that other countries might be more liberal.). In the absence of guidelines, I guess I will simply ignore such situations, and skip them when they appear in the "suggested edits" queue. $\endgroup$
    – J-J-J
    Commented May 13 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ @J-J-J, I consider it as a fair-use. The source has been cited. The screenshot has been used for educational purpose to the point that it shouldn't in any conceivable and judicial way violate the copyright, if any, associated with a freely available lecture note in a university server/repository, meant for public dissemination. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @User1865345 that's what I thought as well, but some easily found guidelines on StackExchange might be useful as mentioned in JJJ's last comment. Possibly the same is true for the use of code as well. I quote pieces of code from R packages several times and a typical example where I don't even write the reference is here (and the reason is because you get this code very easily). $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 12:01
  • $\begingroup$ @User1865345 Fair use is not universal, and that's why I will simply ignore such edits in the future, it seems the easiest solution for now. A resource being freely accessible does not mean that authors can't oppose publication elsewhere. The fact that they will probably tolerate re-use does not mean this is a legal right for the re-user. Note that some people could take issue with their content being published specifically on Stack Exchange without their consent. $\endgroup$
    – J-J-J
    Commented May 13 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ ... In the case of stats.stackexchange.com/a/58266 I have added some more clear references. But it that always so strongly neccesary? A Q&A forum is a bit of a conversation happening on the internet. When I talk (privately) to a person and quote from some article, then I don't need to explicitly reference the source completely. In discussions about a software package, when a specific line of code gets quoted, then I believe ot is oknif it doesn't get fully referenced as long as it isnclear that the line of code stems from that software package. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ @J-J-J in the question stats.stackexchange.com/a/58266 I made some edits that I believe, made the use more fair, and also more resilient to linkrot (adding the name of the authors and the article title). This is a problem of writing on the internet where people use links without fully writing out references to such links. I encounter this problem on StackExchange as well. Recently most of my answers are made from my phone, where I don't have easy editing possibilities and I just add links in a simplistic way $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ guides.library.illinois.edu/copyrightundergradjournals/… suggests under 'Fair use of Tables, Charts, & Graphs' that simple plots aren't covered by copyright. I mention this just to point out that for almost every view you'll be able to find a diametrically opposed one: Absent case law that settles the matter, probably best to avoid basing site policy on this or that interpretation of copyright law. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 16:17

2 Answers 2

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Proposed edits to add an image should be treated the same as any other edit: if it improves the post, approve it. If it detracts from the post, don't.


We, the moderators and site users, don't have any of the specialized knowledge needed to adjudicate copyright claims. We're also not legal representatives for either Stack Exchange or the person claiming copyright, so we have neither the duty nor the obligation to take any particular action on behalf of either party.

If someone claims that

  1. they own the rights to an image and
  2. the image's appearance on Stack Exchange is infringing on their copyright,

then they should contact Stack Exchange, the company, to start the process for remediating: https://policies.stackoverflow.co/company/dmca-takedown/

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    $\begingroup$ Agreed we have no duty and we are no representatives of anyone, and I get "let's not make it our problem" approach. Just to explain my rationale, until now I've seen it as the other maintenance tasks (which are not duties either), but did not realize that there could be such a degree of disagreement over it. I conclude that we should just refrain ourselves from posting anything we know or believe is copyrighted, but simply ignore the situation when possible copyright infringement comes from others. $\endgroup$
    – J-J-J
    Commented May 13 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ (+1) Nevertheless, proper attribution of the image is required, just as it would be for a quote. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Scortchi-ReinstateMonica I don’t dispute that attribution is important, but let’s not conflate the two. Attribution is distinct from copyright. It still violates copyright to pirate a film, even if the pirated film is served with proper attribution. $\endgroup$
    – Sycorax Mod
    Commented May 13 at 23:08
  • $\begingroup$ Of course: "proper attribution of the image is required by site policies, regardless of who owns the copyright & what permissions they may have granted" would have been clearer. If, in a proposed edit, you recognize a passage of text lifted from a published paper or textbook without attribution, you wouldn't simply approve it - the same for an image. $\endgroup$ Commented May 14 at 7:53
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I have written several comments that do not answer the question, but they have become such large in extent that it might be useful to collect them in a single answer.

I am gonna heavily quote myself here,

which creates a very long answer, and it actually means that I don't want to spend much more time (yet) to create a more concise answer. I might say that I would wish to make this post improved (shorter) but I know by now that I usually don't live up to these promises.

  • First, a difficulty with this question is that there might be different contexts and different types/levels of copyright infringement.

    What sort of copyrighted image is it? Is it like a photocopy or is it an image that is available on the internet? Possibly it is sufficient to just add a reference to the creator?

    Also, the solutions may diverge a bit depending on the situation. An edit with an additional image might be large, but possibly you could accept the edit with a re-edit removing the image or changing it to a different one. In other cases removing the image might mute the purpose of the suggested edit.

  • Second, there is an issue with the idea whether all images are actually copyright infringement.

    I know two cases where I have been lazy and used figures from others. One example is here where I use a figure from Neyman and Pearson describing their famous lemma. Another example is here where I use a figure from Fisher describing least discriminant analysis. Is such use of images not right? It is possible to quote other people, I thought that such images would fall into this realm as well.

  • Third, an extension might be made to the use of code

    Possibly the same is true for the use of code as well. I quote pieces of code from R packages several times and a typical example where I don't even write the reference is here (and the reason is because you get this code very easily).

    A Q&A forum is a bit of a conversation happening on the internet. When I talk (privately) to a person and quote from some article, then I don't need to explicitly reference the source completely. In discussions about a software package, when a specific line of code gets quoted, then I believe it is ok when it doesn't get fully referenced as long as it is clear that the line of code stems from that software package.


Finally, I believe that any detailed and complex legal considerations of an edit should not be a consideration for regular auditors. The foremost question is whether a post is improved or not.

The legal use of images should be taken care of by the owners of this website (who, as Scortchi mentions, actually don't do much or anything about it actively).

Of course, it would be helpful if the users of the website help in curating the content in that aspect as well.

Eliminating weeds at their source is the best. We can let everything grow and just wait for DMCA take-down notices, but it is a polite thing to act already before that happens.

The least thing that we can do is making sure that there is proper attribution and if some text is unnecessary large then it can be shortened. But I don't believe that it is useful when that leads to having moderators/reviewers being restrained in making decisions. For the reviewers the statistical content (and style readability) is the foremost importance. Whether or not an image is 'legal' is welcome to be taken into account, but it is not 'our' responsibility to judge this at a detailed level. I would say, don't be too much bothered by it.

Aside from legal considerations, there is also some overlap with proper scientific writing, which in my opinion we should promote. Sources for information should be given. And if ideas stem from others then attribution to those others should be given

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    $\begingroup$ "The legal use of images should be taken care of by the owners of this website. Of course, it would be (very) helpful if the users of the website help in curating the content in that aspect as well" - helpful to whom? Stack Exchange Inc.? The company haven't asked for our help - they take full advantage of the DMCA's Safe Harbour provisions. Copyright holders? It's up to Springer (say) to decide whether to regard attributed use of a figure from one of their textbooks as likely to reduce sales by obviating the need to buy it, or rather as free advertising. $\endgroup$ Commented May 14 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ (I don't presume to weed my neighbour's front garden - he may be wanting to encourage the pollinators.) $\endgroup$ Commented May 14 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Scortchi-ReinstateMonica ah, ok, if Stack Exchange Inc. doesn't care about illegal content then whe shouldn't care about it either (or possibly for reasons of personal moral judgement, but if something is considered fair use then those do not kick in). $\endgroup$ Commented May 14 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ Each user should care about whether their own contributions infringe copyright. The company's rôle is limited to removing material that allegedly infringes copyright when they receive a DMCA take-down notice from the copyright holder, & notifying whoever posted it so that they can contest the claim of infringement should they wish. I believe we've had 4 DMCA take-down notices - ever - on this site; the time & expense a collective effort against possible infringement might have saved the company is therefore nugatory. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ And for the kinds of cases we're talking about - that might or might not be judged to constitute fair dealing, or fair use, or whatever, in the unlikely event that they came to court - it's presumptuous to guess at the interests or wishes of copyright holders. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 9:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Scortchi-ReinstateMonica those are good points. I guess that with "any legal considerations of an edit should not be a consideration for regular reviewers" I meant it to be more subtle about detailed and complex legal considerations. If something is obviously illegal then it should not be accepted, if something is borderline then a reviewer shouldn't be bothered by it as checking whether something is legal or not is not the primary task of users of the website. We are not legal counselors. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ With eliminating weeds at their source I meant that, while a person reviewing other posts might be somewhat less strict regarding illegal content, we shouldn't want this to grow out of hand and let anything get through and rely on DMCA. This places the burden at the copyright holders and creates a wild west where anything goes as long as the other doesn't complain. But just because many people don't actively complain and sent DMCA take-down notices, doesn't make it a good habit to copy a lot of content from others. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 9:29
  • $\begingroup$ What would be an 'obviously illegal' image? - or are you talking more broadly now? $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 10:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Scortchi Maybe it is never entirely 'obvious' but a one might consider three states: clearly fair use, clearly no fair use, and unclear fair use. If something is reasonably clearly not fair use (according to personal opinion) then one can take actions to improve it. In such case I don't believe that it is ethical to leave it and let DMCA take-down notices handle it. (I guess that in all or at least most cases, an unfair use can be changed into fair use by changing the amount of a copy and giving a proper reference) $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ "an unfair use can be changed into fair use" An example is the case from the OP where I added a more clear reference. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ I also remember using some copies from tables about ELO rating in a post here, I have now changed that by adding more clearly a reference (although the reference was already mentioned in the question it makes it more clear). Now, I can imagine when it is not just a classical table, but instead a copy from an entire article that would entail an entire answer, and is from a magazine that is not yet freely available, then this would not be fair use. For example, adding a photocopy of an answering guide for a textbook question would not be fair use. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ Another example, if some power point presentation answers the question and somebody copy pasted the entire content as an answer (even when it is with a reference). Here it also depends on the nature. A single quote answer should be possible (e.g. a short proof of some theorem), but if the quote is not just purely information/idea and also contains anecdotes or style, then it becomes more of a nature that is not purely information. $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ These examples seem to be mostly covered by current policy - copy just what's pertinent into your own post & provide attribution - which applies regardless of if the copyright's expired, any applicable licenses, or any permissions you may have been granted by the copyright-holder. (It wouldn't hurt though to edit the page to more explicitly encompass figures as well as text.) We're not precluded from making new site policies w.r.t. potential copyright infringement ... $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ ... (see Links to copyright material), but they need to be clear & allow for reasonably consistent enforcement. Going by personal opinion as to what constitutes 'fair use' according to U.S. law would make a Wild West of reviewing! $\endgroup$ Commented May 15 at 13:46

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