This is a follow-up question to my previous one. I'm considering writing a manual translation software, where the end user will be writing the entire translation themselves, but the software could offer definitions and explanations for words (not automatic translations!). In effect, the software would be a word processor with a built in searchable dictionary.

The problem comes from the dictionary material which I planned to use, as it is licensed under CC BY-SA v4.0. In my previous question people pointed out that any reproduction of the dictionary material within the program as well as any translation produced would be reproductive of the dictionary and need to also follow CC BY-SA.

Now, forcing a specific, restrictive license like CC BY-SA on anything an end user would produce on this translation software would render it extremely unattractive if not downright unusable depending on their circumstances. I would want to make this software as free as possible, including the end user having full copyright control to anything they legally produce using the software.

  1. Is this reading of the BY CC-SA V4.0 license correct?
  2. If/if not, how could I ensure the end user has full rights to anything they produce using this software? Would I need to request the dictionary under some other, less restrictive license from its original producer?
  • "how could I ensure the end user has full rights to anything they produce using this [manual translation] software" - Note that translations themselves are considered derivative works of the original, whether the translation is done manually or automatically. So for example if I translate your post into another language (even if I do it manually by using some free or proprietary dictionary), then I need to respect the license of your post (CC BY-SA) when doing that translation. The license of the dictionaries would only matter if I am translating the dictionaries themselves.
    – Brandin
    Jan 15, 2023 at 5:41

1 Answer 1


Using a dictionary to look up words doesn't create a derivative work, as far as I'm aware.

When a dictionary is copyrighted, what is covered by copyright is maybe the description for the words, and the collection of the words as a whole (details depend on jurisdiction). Copyright protects expression of human creativity, and maybe human effort. Not subject to copyright are individual words or their meaning.

Open licenses such as CC-BY-SA do not place additional contractual restrictions on you. Instead, they give permission to do something that would otherwise be prohibited by copyright (since the default copyright status of any work is “all rights reserved”). Here, using the dictionary to look up words doesn't impact copyright in any way, so the CC-BY-SA can be ignored in this context.

Note that many people “use” CC-BY-SA content when writing stuff, without apparent problems. For example, I used concepts from your CC-BY-SA 4.0 licensed question as the basis to write this answer. Wikipedia articles are also CC-BY-SA 3.0 licensed, and I looked up a word for this answer in the Wiktionary. Specifically in the context of software, copyleft licenses are quite common, but this doesn't affect the licensing status of other creative works that are created with these tools. E.g. part of this answer was written with the GPL-3.0 licensed Emacs editor, running on a GPL-2.0 licensed Linux kernel, posted through the Firefox browser that contains LGPL-3.0 components. Yet this answer is not affected by those licenses, because it's not a derivative work of any of those other works.

  • I agree with you that manual translations are not a derivative work of the dictionary used by the translators. But do you have any supporting references for your claim that (while dictionaries with all their entries are copyright protected) individual entries from that dictionary are no longer subject to copyright? In your theory, would it then be possible to collect all these individual entries of a dictionary, which have lost their copyright protection, and then assemble a new dictionary which is independent from the copyright of the original dictionary? Jan 14, 2023 at 13:18
  • @Martin_in_AUT I only tried to claim that individual words and their abstract meaning cannot be subjected to copyright. I am allowed to use the word “dictionary” in my writing even if it appears in a dictionary. I can also describe that word's meaning in my own words. Whether an entire entry (consisting of a word and a description of its meaning) is subject to copyright would be out of scope here.
    – amon
    Jan 14, 2023 at 17:37
  • For individual entries in a dictionary where there are only a few ways to express those definitions, those might be considered as not copyrightable due to the merger doctrine in Copyright law. For example, most dictionaries I've seen define the letters of the alphabet, such as C, with a description such as "the third letter of the alphabet" and so on. The fact that they all use nearly the same descriptions does not mean that all those dictionaries are infringing on each other's copyrights, for example. Nor do they need to get permission to use similar wordings.
    – Brandin
    Jan 15, 2023 at 5:36
  • 1
    I understood from the OP's question that the dictionary in the XML file includes <words>, <verbose description of the meaning of the words>, which is much more complex than the basic example given for the Merger Doctrine (which b.t.w. only seems to be valid in some countries with Common Law, especially USA). Anyhow, I believe this discussion is off-topic here and should be in Law SE. Jan 15, 2023 at 9:01

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