CC-BY-SA is a Creative Commons license with a copyleft clause - if you derive something from it, you must also provide the derivative under the same license if you distribute it. The relevant clause is here:

ShareAlike — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.

In the actual license, it refers to derivation as adapted material:

Adapted Material means material subject to Copyright and Similar Rights that is derived from or based upon the Licensed Material and in which the Licensed Material is translated, altered, arranged, transformed, or otherwise modified in a manner requiring permission under the Copyright and Similar Rights held by the Licensor. For purposes of this Public License, where the Licensed Material is a musical work, performance, or sound recording, Adapted Material is always produced where the Licensed Material is synched in timed relation with a moving image.

So does inclusion in a software package turn the software into adapted material?

  • If I include a CC-BY-SA licensed image in the software, do I need to share just the image or does the entire software come under CC-BY-SA?
  • What if I make modifications to this image, what do I need to share?

In the large majority of cases, the software of a program and the artwork used by a program are not related to each other where copyright is concerned.
An exception might be an image that was created by a program from a fixed formula and the source code of that program.

For a work to be considered a derived work, there must be a way to go from the original work to the target work. There is no such conversion path between the source code of a program and the artwork of a program. For that reason, the two are considered to be independent works as far as copyright is concerned.

If two works are independent works for copyright, then their copyright licenses also don't affect each other. This means that you can perfectly combine artwork under a free (CC-SA) license with software under a closed-source license.

If you made changes to the artwork under the CC-SA license, then you must share your modified artwork under the same (or a compatible) license.


You only need to share the image under CC-BY-SA. This means your project will be multi-licensed.

The important part is that only the image is currently under BY-SA. Since the only requirement of the license is that if you share, modify or redistribute the image, you have to license it under BY-SA. The license of the image can have no bearing on the rest of your project, as long as the rest of your project isn't a derivative work of the image.

It may be wise, as in many cases, to include a Licensing file with your project, giving details of the project's licenses:

The majority of this project is licensed under X. This includes the codebase and many assets. A list of exceptions is provided below, along with the license for each one. When using these assets, please be mindful that you are using the correct license.

  • image-name.jpg is licensed under CC-BY-SA
  • other-image.png is licensed under Y
  • other exceptions

The software might be considered "collective work" instead of "derived work"

TL;DR: I'm not sure, but this is a distinction that might be worth looking into.

https://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/48375/using-images-with-cc-by-sa-license-in-slides-or-a-thesis/48382#48382 is for the image in book/thesis, which I believe is analogous for the software case.

In CC By-SA 3.0, there was clear distinction between "derived" and "collective" work, and it was explicitly mentioned that if you include an image in a book, the book is a "collective work", not derived, and does not need to be CC By-SA. So the image in game might be analogous.

"Collection" means a collection of literary or artistic works, such as encyclopedias and anthologies, or performances, phonograms or broadcasts, or other works or subject matter other than works listed in Section 1(f) below, which, by reason of the selection and arrangement of their contents, constitute intellectual creations, in which the Work is included in its entirety in unmodified form along with one or more other contributions, each constituting separate and independent works in themselves, which together are assembled into a collective whole. A work that constitutes a Collection will not be considered an Adaptation (as defined below) for the purposes of this License.

This was somewhat tested in US court for an Atlas at Drauglis v. Kappa Map Group, LLC where a 2.0 image was used as a cover of an Atlas, with attribution on the back cover, and no infringement was found.

However, it is hard for me to be sure if the "a single image in book/game case" is actually a collection or not. Can a collection have a single item? Are the icons of your UI a collection? Intuitively it does not feel like it, since their main goal is not to showcase the items, but rather to integrate into your work.

Also, depending on the type of software, it might not be feasible to have a clear attribution for every image within the media itself, think e.g. of a video game. This makes it feel even less like a collection.

In 4.0 the term "collective work" was dropped, and things became even less clear, although most people are guessing that hasn't changed, although I could not find clear evidence. Using CC BY-SA music in a podcast suggests that this distinction in 4.0 is simply delegated to your local law, or in other words, as a lawyer, and kind of reduces the usefulness of a license in the first place. The collective work wiki page has comments on it for several countries.

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