I have found a translation of an ancient book, and the translation is now out of copyright and its scanned contents are being hosted publicly under a Creative Common 4.0 license. The scans are images, so I am planning on applying OCR to the scanned pages, save the contents as text, and provide better file formats for it (such as PDF, Mobi, EPUB, etc).

I want to provide the code used to OCR the contents, the transformed text (LaTeX) and the final files (PDF, MOBI, etc) for free and publicly. I was thinking of licensing the code and the LaTeX files as GPLv3, and then licensing the final output files as Creative Commons 4.0. I am planning on attributing the original sources and scanned content through the whole process. Is this the right approach or will there be a licensing conflict?

Edit 1: As per @Kevin answer, I double checked the license and found out it is actually a CC 4.0 BY-NC-SA.

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    What is the reason for having different licenses for the LaTex file and the final output (PDF) file? Both is 'content' and not 'code' so a CC-style license seems better than a license tailored for software. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 14:00
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    @Martin_in_AUT if you want to produce a book and write in latex, it makes sense to treat the latex file as code as it is the preferred format for modifications. You just apply different style files for your different formats Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 14:26
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    @planetmaker One could, however, just as well use the CC BY 4.0 license for the LaTex file. Using GPL seems a bit odd, as it would prevent that others can publish the same as OP's output PDF under CC BY 4.0. They would be forced to publish the PDF under a GPL license. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 16:30
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    @Martin_in_AUT agreed, the transfer to the output is not wanted... so a +1 to the answer of Kevin Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 20:54
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    In fact, it would make more sense to license the output as GPL than it would the latex source. The only real difference between CC-BY-SA and GPL is the source guarantee. You only need a source guarantee if you do not already have the source. So if you want to guarantee source access for downstream users, you ought to put everything under the GPL. If you don't care, put everything under CC. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 22:49

1 Answer 1


Since the translation (i.e. the text) is out of copyright, you can basically do whatever you want (the OCR'd text is supposed to be word-for-word identical to the uncopyrighted original text, so you don't have to comply with the license on the scan - for that matter, the scan may not even be subject to copyright protection in the first place). However, you should consider some common use cases, and ask yourself what rights you want the reuser to have:

  • Suppose someone wants to change some of the formatting of your LaTeX, for example to meet the stylistic requirements of some publication. Do you want to force them to license the resulting document as GPL?
  • Suppose someone wants to reword the document, to bring it in line with a more modern variety of English (e.g. several decades in the future). Should they be forced to use GPL?
  • Anyone who doesn't want to put up with your licensing restrictions can always just strip the LaTeX commands (so they just have plain text) and redo the formatting from scratch. Since the underlying text is out of copyright, they don't need to comply with the GPL. Does using the GPL really accomplish anything, other than inconveniencing people?

It's my opinion that using a copyleft license is more trouble than it's worth in a case like this, but you may come to a different conclusion. If you really want to use the GPL, you could write an exception, for example:

As an exception, you may process this document through any LaTeX compiler, and distribute the resulting PDF or PostScript file(s) under [license]. If you modify this document, you may extend this exception to your version of the document, but you are not required to do so. If you do not wish to do so, delete this exception statement from your version.

(Be sure to identify a specific Creative Commons license. Do not just say "Creative Commons 4.0" - otherwise someone might choose e.g. CC-BY-NC-ND, which is probably much more restrictive than you wanted.)

However, I'm not thrilled with that option, for multiple reasons:

  • It's a form of crayon license, and those are generally problematic.
  • It's specific to LaTeX and the PDF and PostScript formats. You might be able to remove those format specifications from the text, but that might make it so ambiguous or general that it becomes hard to tell what is permitted and what is not. Copyright lasts for a long time, often much longer than individual technologies. These three technologies have been around for a while, so they might be less susceptible to obsolescence than other formats, but I still don't like tying the license to them, just in case.
  • The text is not under copyright, so you're not really protecting much in the first place. I just think this is too much legal complexity for too little benefit.

Instead of the GPL, I would suggest a simple permissive license such as CC-BY, or one of the other Creative Commons licenses. If you really want to be maximally permissive, you could also choose CC-0.

  • I just double checked the license, and realized that it is "CC 4.0 BY-NC-SA". I will update my question shortly. And to answer your question, I honestly do not care what people do with the code and outputs. I just want to digitize it, provide free access, and let everyone do whatever they want to do. I don't want to license any output files (PDF, EPUB, etc), or give them the most permissive license. Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 22:51
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    @SirCode-A-Lot: Added a line to the end explaining my actual suggestion, which I realize I forgot to do earlier.
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 0:59
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    @SirCode-A-Lot You added that the scans are claimed to be under CC 4.0 BY-NC-SA license. This is probably not sustainable, if the original translation is out of copyright (i.e. in PD) then the scan is as well. As you can see here in Law SE, OCR-ing does not add new copyright. The final question is if your layout (in LaTex) meets the threshold of originality. CC-0 is your best option. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 7:08
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    @Martin_in_AUT: I agree that the scan is probably not subject to much copyright protection, but there may be formatting or other ornamental elements that are protected independently of the text. Even so, that copyright will probably belong to the publisher or typesetter, not the person who put the book on the glass and pressed "scan." Similarly, OP's LaTeX may also have a thin copyright in such formatting elements.
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 7:20
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    @Kevin OP wrote "the translation is now out of copyright", I am strongly assuming that this also covers formatting or other ornamental elements of that translation. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 8:11

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