Commons:When to use the PD-signature tag

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"COM:SIG" redirects here. For the official guideline on signing of posts on Commons, see COM:Signatures.

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This signature of Herman Hesse is allowed here as it is not eligible for copyright protection either in Germany or in the US

This page explains when to use {{PD-signature}}.

The {{PD-signature}} template is used to tag a scan or photograph of an individual's personal signature when that signature is considered ineligible for copyright protection both in the US and under local law. As with most content on Commons, the image can be kept only if it is public domain or available under a free licence both under US and under local law. US law does not grant copyright for typical personal signatures, so the only issue will usually be whether the signature is protected under local law.

In many—but not all—countries, a typical signature is not considered sufficiently original to be granted copyright protection.

In all cases, judgement has to be used, as there is no absolute rule that defines whether a signature is or is not capable of copyright protection. Countries which typically do not grant copyright to signatures may do so if the signature is sufficiently complex to become a protectable artistic work (akin to a non-trivial drawing); on the other hand, countries which typically do grant copyright may not do so if the signature is extremely simple (e.g. a scribbled line or two).

It may not always be evident which country's law applies to a particular signature (and this may be a difficult legal question), but taking the individual's country of nationality would be a good start.

US law[edit]

✓OK for a typical signature. In Copyright circular Number 1 the US Copyright Office sets out a list of things on which copyright protection cannot be granted, including "Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; and mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring."

The US Copyright Compendium, chapter 503.02(2) states that copyright will be denied to a character of Chinese calligraphy painted upon horizontally striated grass cloth. It states that "like typography, calligraphy is not copyrightable as such, notwithstanding the effect achieved by calligraphic brush strokes across a striated surface". Thus, it appears that calligraphy cannot be protected and, by analogy, signatures.

In Commons talk:Licensing/Archive 11#Autographs.2Fsignatures, there is a reference to User:BrokenSphere having sent an email to the U.S. Copyright Office, and receiving the reply "A signature is not protected by copyright".

If the signature is sufficiently complex to be considered a protectable artistic work in the US (akin to a non-trivial drawing), it cannot be hosted on Commons regardless of the position under local law unless it has been licensed under a compatible license or would have fallen into the public domain under some other rule (e.g. expiration of copyright).

Civil law countries[edit]

Civil law countries require a relatively high minimum level of intellectual creativity which will exclude typical signatures from copyright protection.

If you are aware of specific caselaw or legal advice on this issue in any country, please add an entry below.

Germany[edit]

German copyright law requires a high threshold of originality, called Schöpfungshöhe.

✓OK for a typical signature. The relevant law is the Urheberrechtsgesetz, abbreviated UrhG. Paragraph 2(2) UrhG makes it clear that there is a threshold of originality that must be met: "Werke im Sinne dieses Gesetzes sind nur persönliche geistige Schöpfungen", which can be roughly translated as "According to this law, only personal intellectual creations are considered as works." The Schöpfungshöhe defines the minimal requirements that must be met for a work to become a copyrightable intellectual creation. In this context, signatures are comparable to simple graphics that just fulfill some practical purpose which are likewise not eligible for copyright as documented by following cases:

  • OLG Köln, 6 U 199/85 (GRUR 1986, 889) ruled that this image is ineligible for copyright including its animation
  • BVerfG 1 BvR 1571/02 ruled that this image is ineligible for copyright because it is a work of applied art serving a practical purpose which requires a higher threshold of originality

In general, simple type faces and signatures for practical purposes are not eligible for copyright. To quote from Haimo Schack: Urheber- und Urhebervertragsrecht, p. 118:

"Dagegen wird ein Urheberschutz von Schriftzeichen von der Rechtssprechung in aller Regel verneint. Auch das einprägsame Signet der "ARD-1" erfüllte nicht die Anforderungen an eine persönliche geistige Schöpfung. Seit dem 1.6.2004 werden Schriftzeichen nicht mehr über das Schriftzeichengesetz, sondern unmittelbar als Geschmacksmuster geschützt (vgl § 61 GeschmMG)."

Rough translation:

"In contrast, copyright protection for typefaces is declined by the prevailing case law. Even the catchy logo "ARD-1" did not fulfil the requirements of a personal intellectual creation. Since 1 June 2004 type faces are no longer protected by the Schriftzeichengesetz (law for type faces) but as design patents (see § 61 GeschmMG)."

See also de:Rechtsschutz von Schriftzeichen#Schutz handschriftlicher Schriftarten und Gestaltungen.

However, there may still be copyright be if the signature is sufficiently complex to become a protectable artistic work (eg because it has more creativity than this image - see above).

China, People's Republic of[edit]

X mark.svg Not OK: According to the laws of the People's Republic of China, whether a work is protected by copyright, that is contingent on the originality (独创性, literally "independent creativity"). Works having originality are protected and the copyright held by their authors ("Copyright Law of the People's Republic of China (2010) Article 14: "A work created by compilation shall refer to the work which is compiled of some works, fragments of works or the data or other materials not constituting a work, and the choice or layout of the contents of which embodies the original creation. The copyright of the compilation work shall be enjoyed by the compiler, provided that the exercise of such copyright does not infringe upon the copyright of the pre-existing works included in the compilation.") The signatures are commonly created independently rather than imitatively.

The signatures by the Chinese people containing Chinese characters may be considered as Chinese calligraphy works, and thus defined as artwork (美术作品, or translated as "works of fine arts") and protected by law ("Regulations for the Implementation of the Copyright Law of the People's Republic of China (2002) Article 4: "(8) 'works of fine arts' means two- or three-dimensional works of the plastic arts created in lines, colours or other media which impart aesthetic effect, such as paintings, works of calligraphy and sculptures;"). In a typical case, Dow Jones & Company had used a calligraphy “” written by calligrapher Guan Dongsheng. In 2003, Guan Dongsheng won his court action against the company, ruling by the Beijing First Intermediate People's Court. The artwork can be seen here.

Exceptions:

  • If a signature is originally from documents of legislative, administrative, or judicial nature, it is in the public domain (see {{PD-PRC-exempt}}).
  • Signatures whose author died more than 50 years ago are in the public domain.
  • If the work is not a handwritten signature, but was instead created using standard, common typefaces of Ming, Sans-serif, or Regular script, it may be in the public domain. However, the vector glyphs in computer fonts may still be copyrighted.
中文: 根据中华人民共和国的法律,作品是否受著作权保护,要看是否具有独创性,独创性的作品著作权由作者所有(《中华人民共和国著作权法 (2010年)》第十四条:“汇编若干作品、作品的片段或者不构成作品的数据或者其他材料,对其内容的选择或者编排体现独创性的作品,为汇编作品,其著作权由汇编人享有,但行使著作权时,不得侵犯原作品的著作权”),而签名一般均为独立创作而非模仿。

事实上,中国人包含汉字的签名可认为有书法性质,属于美术作品(《中华人民共和国著作权法实施条例 (2002年)》第四条:“(八)美术作品,是指绘画、书法、雕塑等以线条、色彩或者其他方式构成的有审美意义的平面或者立体的造型艺术作品”),受到著作权保护。典型案例是道琼斯公司使用了书法家关东升书写的仅一个“道”字。2003年,关东升诉诸北京市第一中级人民法院并胜诉。

例外情况:

  • 假如签名来自国家机关的立法、行政、司法性质的文件,可以认为是公有领域,并请加上{{PD-PRC-exempt}}。
  • 作者死亡50年以上的签名属于公有领域。
  • 假如该字样并非手写签名,而是规范的、通用的宋体、黑体、楷体字样,那么可能在公有领域,尽管如此,还是要注意IT公司创作的电脑字型的矢量字形可能依然有版权。
无法上传至Wikimedia Commons的签名文件,仍然可以作为“合理使用”上传至维基百科项目中。

Japan[edit]

✓OK for a typical signature, X mark.svg Not OK for calligraphic signatures. The decision Hanrei Jiho No. 1730: 123 set a relatively high artistic threshold for typefaces, which presumably applies also to handwriting. According to Article 2, Paragraph 1, Item 1 of the Copyright Law, a work is a production in which thoughts or sentiments are expressed in a creative way and which falls within the literary, scientific artistic or musical domain. A signature must have aesthetic properties capable of artistic appreciation, not just beauty in terms of practical functionality, to be copyrightable.

Common law countries[edit]

Most Common law countries use a "skill and labour" test to determine the minimum level of originality capable of attracting copyright protection, and in some countries such as the UK the required level is extremely low. Without some research into individual laws, it cannot be assumed that a signature from a Common law country is necessarily allowed on Commons. If there is real doubt about the position a local court would take, then the image must be deleted under the precautionary principle.

If the signature is extremely simple (e.g. a scribbled line or two), it will not be copyright even in Common law countries.

If you are aware of specific caselaw or legal advice on this issue in any country, please add an entry below.

United Kingdom[edit]

X mark.svg Not OK for a typical signature. The level of originality required for copyright protection in the United Kingdom is very low, and it is easily arguable that personal signatures are entitled to copyright protection. Under United Kingdom law, a signature may be protectable as a graphic work (a type of artistic work). Artistic works are protected regardless of artistic merit. There are various sources that point in that direction, including the following:

  • The practitioners' text Copinger and Skone James on Copyright mentions, at para. 2-23, an unreported decision that a signature combined with a (presumably PD) shield device can be accorded artistic copyright.
  • Sallie Spilsbury, Media Law, 2000, p. 439: An individual's signature may be protected under law as an artistic work. If so, the unauthorised reproduction of the signature will infringe copyright. The name itself will not be protected by copyright; it is the appearance of the signature which is protected.
  • Alan Story LLM, in "Owning Diana: From People's Princess to Private Property" accepts it is that possible ("though debatable") that there may be copyright in Diana's signature as an original artistic work. This is of interest, in that Story accepts this even though he is writing from an anti-protectionist angle.

Unless further legal commentary or caselaw to the contrary becomes available, the UK position is that typical personal signatures are arguably entitled to protection under local law, and generally UK signatures should be deleted under the precautionary principle. However, if the signature is extremely simple (eg a scribbled line or two), it will not be copyright even in the UK.

How to use the PD-signature tag[edit]

You can apply the tag {{PD-signature}} to a photograph or scan of a personal signature provided that:

  • The signature is highly likely to fall below the threshold of originality for protection in the US; and
  • It is highly likely to fall below the threshold of originality for the stated country. (If the signature is of "typical" complexity/creativity, it should be assumed free in Civil law countries and unfree in Common law countries for which no specific country rule is listed above); and
  • You explicitly state as a parameter to the tag which country's law is relevant, (e.g. the individual's country of nationality).

Note that you must specify a country, so that a judgement can be made as the minimum level of originality required under local law. If no country is stated, or if the signature is arguably complex/creative enough to attract copyright then the image cannot be assumed free and will be deleted under the precautionary principle.

Signatures and trademark protection[edit]

In many countries, a signature is capable of being protected as a trademark. However, even where a signature is protected by trademark laws it can still be hosted here: see Commons:Non-copyright restrictions. If you know that a particular signature is trademark-protected, you can add the {{trademark}} disclaimer as well as the {{PD-signature}} tag.

Reuse of signature images[edit]

Warning Care is needed by re-users of signature images. Signatures are still protected by forgery, counterfeiting, and other fraud laws, and may possibly be subject to trademark protection (even if no {{trademark}} disclaimer has been applied). Lack of copyright protection is no defence if non-copyright laws are broken and, as always, it is for the re-user to ensure that the proposed re-use is allowed under local law.