If a dictionary is published under CC BY-NC-SA and one takes out a word list and publishes it after modifying it for some purpose without the definitions . Will CC BY-NC-SA still apply? The use is commercial.


2 Answers 2


In jurisdictions with sui generis database rights (primarily the UK and EU):

This is almost certainly infringement, either of copyright or of the database right. Creative Commons 4.0 licenses explicitly include database rights, meaning that there is no problem with applying them to word lists and similar compilations of information, in jurisdictions that recognize database rights.

In jurisdictions with sweat of the brow copyright (primarily the UK):

This is very likely copyright infringement, assuming that some sort of "skill, labour, and judgment" was expended in assembling the list of words in the first place.

In jurisdictions with neither (primarily the US):

It's hard to say.

Under US law, a list of purely factual information, with no original content, cannot be copyrighted. In the linked case, the list at issue was a phonebook. It consisted of the names and phone numbers of all residents in a given area, in alphabetical order. The Supreme Court held that this was not copyrightable, because it contained no original work and was a purely mechanical list of information.

On the other hand, there may be originality in the selection, organization, or presentation of a list of facts. A typical dictionary does not include every word that anyone has ever uttered or written, but only those words which meet that dictionary's criteria for inclusion. The application of those criteria probably does count as a degree of originality sufficient for copyright to vest. However, the aforementioned decision also says this (emphasis added):

This protection is subject to an important limitation. The mere fact that a work is copyrighted does not mean that every element of the work may be protected. Originality remains the sine qua non of copyright; accordingly, copyright protection may extend only to those components of a work that are original to the author. Patterson & Joyce 800-802; Ginsburg, Creation and Commercial Value: Copyright Protection of Works of Information, 90 Colum.L.Rev. 1865, 1868, and n. 12 (1990) (hereinafter Ginsburg). Thus, if the compilation author clothes facts with an original collocation of words, he or she may be able to claim a copyright in this written expression. Others may copy the underlying facts from the publication, but not the precise words used to present them. In Harper & Row, for example, we explained that President Ford could not prevent others from copying bare historical facts from his autobiography, see 471 U.S. at 556-557, but that he could prevent others from copying his "subjective descriptions and portraits of public figures." [499 U.S. 340, 349] Id. at 563. Where the compilation author adds no written expression, but rather lets the facts speak for themselves, the expressive element is more elusive. The only conceivable expression is the manner in which the compiler has selected and arranged the facts. Thus, if the selection and arrangement are original, these elements of the work are eligible for copyright protection. See Patry, Copyright in Compilations of Facts (or Why the "White Pages" Are Not Copyrightable), 12 Com. & Law 37, 64 (Dec. 1990) (hereinafter Patry). No matter how original the format, however, the facts themselves do not become original through association. See Patterson & Joyce 776.

This inevitably means that the copyright in a factual compilation is thin. Notwithstanding a valid copyright, a subsequent compiler remains free to use the facts contained in another's publication to aid in preparing a competing work, so long as the competing work does not feature the same selection and arrangement. As one commentator explains it: "[N]o matter how much original authorship the work displays, the facts and ideas it exposes are free for the taking. . . . [T]he very same facts and ideas may be divorced from the context imposed by the author, and restated or reshuffled by second comers, even if the author was the first to discover the facts or to propose the ideas." Ginsburg 1868.

I am uncertain how the boldfaced clause would apply to a dictionary or word list in particular. In general, it would seem to suggest that you could selectively pull from one or more word lists, and come up with your own original list of words, so long as it's not substantially the same list as someone else's. But it's difficult to say exactly how much your word list would need to differ from theirs. You may wish to consult a copyright attorney for more specific advice.

  • This is a really well researched answer. Well just found a dictionary in public domain . This one can be used without any fear of copyright think. Nov 8, 2020 at 18:59

Taking a word out of a dictionary is like taking a music note out of a music work. Of course the license still applies.

If anything, it might prove the willful infringement, and that can bring triple damages with it.

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    Had heard that data cannot be copyrighted but its implementation can be. So isn't a list of words data? Nov 6, 2020 at 12:33
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    IANAL, just interested in improving my knowledge. Isn't one note or one word too small to have copyright attached? Do you have a citation for your implicit assertion that how the data is collected makes a difference? I've never heard that before. I would have expected that re-publishing the word list with whatever original expressive components removed entirely would be okay; see Feist v Rural Telephone Service.
    – studog
    Nov 6, 2020 at 21:58
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    If you take one note out of a music book, of course it isn't copyrightable. Your analogy makes no sense. Nov 7, 2020 at 2:34
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    I agree narrowly with @curousdanii here: taking one note isn't copyrightable. But furthermore, that isn't even reflective what the OP is doing, which is taking many words. The analogy here seems both internally wrong and externally misapplied. I do respect your extensive legal knowledge, but this particular answer seems like a poorly-expressed (or situationally-inappropriate choice of) example.
    – apsillers
    Nov 7, 2020 at 5:18
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    @curiousdannii: The analogy is that words are like notes: one note is like one word, not copyrightable in isolation. A carefully assembled collection is copyrightable, and a mechanical transform does not not produce a new independent work.
    – MSalters
    Nov 7, 2020 at 15:03

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