There is a very complex API endpoint with a documentation licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Due to its complexity, I am considering developing a commercial visual drag & drop editor (single-page web application) to make working with that API a lot easier.

I would like to take parts of the documentation and display it in the editor. For example, when the user is editing a certain parameter, I want to show the CC BY-SA 4.0 licensed content for that parameter. It's okay to show the licensed content even behind a paywall 1, 2. Obviously I need to display an attribution, which is not an issue.

The documentation is in plaintext, so I intend to write a parser to convert it into something more manageable, such as JSON. This is expressly allowed under CC. I can do this in the backend, so if I don't share the JSON I don't even need to worry about section 3 (attribution, sharealike) of CC BY-SA 4.0 for that JSON.

However, I struggle with the definition of "Adapted Material". Answers to similar questions on OpenSource StackExchange seem to conclude that as long as there is no ancestral path from the editor to the documentation, the editor would not be considered an adapted material:

However, reading the following CC statements seem to suggest the editor could be actually considered an adapted material of the documentation:

And particularly:

Quote from the practical guide:

The distinction between collections and combinations of works will most likely be an important factor under every jurisdiction. In a collection, e.g. an anthology or a catalogue, a number of works are simply put together for publishing. The different contents stand alone as separate and distinguishable works, so their identification and the identification of each author are unproblematic. Hence, to include a work into a collection will usually not be considered an adaptation.
On the other hand, combining works will in many cases have the effect of “entwining” the individual works causing them to lose their individual expression. Depending on the technique, work combinations tend to display their own aesthetic expression which differs from the individual works which were used. If this is the case, the result will usually have to be considered as “adapted material” and the ND license will not permit its publication unless allowed under the applicable copyright law.
One determining differentiator between collections and combinations is whether the individual works remain separate and distinguishable in the given context. If the work itself was modified, e.g. a text was curtailed or a song remixed, the ND restriction would apply in any case, since mashing up and remixing will usually involve such modifications. If a verbatim copy of the work was, however, simply grouped with others, the result would in many cases be a collection rather than a combination, i.e. there would be no adaptation.
If verbatim copies of works were combined to create a new comprehensive work with its own aesthetic expression, the new work would also have to be considered “adapted material.” Here, the combined material would not be “grouped” but rather “merged” resulting in the emergence of a new and larger work which contains both, own and reused material. Examples for this would include the use of a copyright-protected image in a movie, the use of a copyright-protected cartoon character in a video or the above-mentioned use of music tracks in moving images.
In light of the above, it would seem appropriate to adopt the following principle as a general rule of thumb: Every time existing material is merged into a larger work which has a character of its own, the works are adapted in the terms of copyright and the CC ND restriction. The more the individual works are used “as-is” and “stand-alone,” i.e. they are only grouped, the less likely their combination/collection will be considered as adapted material.

This explanation seems to contrast with the one provided in other related questions 1, 2 and give me the impression that even if you use a CC BY-SA 4.0 protected image in an application, where the image is presented in a way to merge with surrounding visual expression, such application would be considered an adapted material because at that point its a combination of works, not a simple collection.

So hopefully you can see my struggle with adapted materials. The quote above suggests using any CC BY-SA 4.0 licensed content in a software application would require that application itself to be licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (or compatible license), as long as the licensed content merges with the visual expression of the application. I guess the only way to prevent that is to very clearly make the licensed content pop-out of the application visuals, with a proper attribution footnote or something like that.

Thus, if I show the documentation snippet for a specific parameter in a way that blends with the UI, that would make the app adapted material, while having the content pop out of the UI and make it look quite foreign, it would no longer be adapted material?

How can I use programming documentation without infringing copyright?

  • My recommendation is to contact the authors by email before reusing it, and ask permission Dec 24, 2020 at 17:34

3 Answers 3


There is another option here, potentially: Move the external documentation out of the application entirely. (And out from behind the paywall, even.)

Instead, set up a web service that publishes the documentation, adapted for display but not combined with anything else or remixed in any way. (Simply formatted for presentation on the site, which as you say is typically presented as OK within even the more stringent readings of the CC terms.)

Then, your application has a resource from which it can pull up any relevant documentation sections / excerpts whenever needed. You could even set up a pipeline that lets you give back to the original documentation source, by passing on community-sourced enhancements collected via the open-access site. (For instance, say you (re-)publish the documentation as a set of wiki pages. Users would be able to make corrections and improvements to the documentation content. If you explicitly state that contributions are made under the same license terms, then anything submitted can be floated upstream.)

Hopefully this goes without saying, but you should only consider taking this path if you genuinely intend the sister site to be an open-access resource for the upstream project's documentation. (Which still makes good business sense for your project, I would argue, simply because anything that benefits that project also benefits your project in turn. Standard rising-tide stuff.) In no way should you even consider creating such a site merely as a front / "legal shield", to APPEAR as if you're satisfying the Share-Alike provisions of the CC license and wish to contribute back. Because that would be a dick move.


That sounds like a case of a programme (your editor) and data it processes (the documentation). That's two pieces which can work independently and which can be distributed indpendently and would be bundled for convenience reasons in the case you describe.

Concerning bundling, the different parts can have different licenses according to common concensus, if each component makes sense on its own. They are considered independent works, they do not directly depend on oneanother - even when they work together. Think of it like this: would it be possible to come-up with another documentation in same format without changing the editor. Or would it make sense to use the documentation in the adapted format in another editor?

So in your case, you may distribute your editor under whatever license you choose. And you may distribute the adopted documentation under terms of the CC-BY-SA 4.0 (or compatible). That would in your case mean that the "share-alike" part applies to the modified version (=the adaption) in json format (or whatever you choose) which is being digested by your editor.


You can include the documentation in your application if the application is licensed under the GPLv3.

This is one of two licenses BY-SA is compatible with, the other being the Free Art License.

  • 1
    The answer is ambiguous: do you mean the OP may do this if the documentation is licensed under GPLv3, or that the OP may do this if the application is licensed under GPLv3? It might be worth editing your answer to remove the ambiguity.
    – MadHatter
    Dec 23, 2020 at 6:38
  • Application under GPLv3 and docs under CC BY-SA 4.0 will work.
    – techboyg5
    Dec 23, 2020 at 17:54

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