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 Commons:Signatures.

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This signature of Hermann 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.

This tag does not apply to signatures that are out of copyright due to their age, for example where the author died more than 70 years ago (or whatever the local copyright term may be). Simply use a tag such as {{PD-Old}} instead.

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.

United States

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COM:SIG United States

United States of America

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 US 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

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.

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COM:SIG Germany


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 (e.g. because it has more creativity than this image - see above).

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 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 (, literally "independent creativity"). Works having originality are protected and the copyright held by their authors ("Copyright Law of the People's Republic of China (2020) Article 15: "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 (, 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 OK:

  • 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.
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OK for a typical signature,  Not OK for calligraphic signatures. The decision 平成10(受)332 (Hanrei Jiho No. 1730: 123) set a relatively high artistic threshold for typefaces. The decision 平成10(ワ)14675 substantiates that calligraphy works are copyrightable [1]. 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.

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COM:SIG Jordan


OK for a typical signature, based on Article 3 of Jordanian copyright law, which specifies what is eligible to be copyrighted.

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OK for a typical signature. Because calligraphies consist of trivial mechanical processes that do not involve artistic and literary efforts, they do not pass the threshold of originality due to the lack of reasonable creative and individual transmission during their process ("mera naturaleza de las cosas").[2] On Resolution No. 0286-1998/TPI-INDECOPI explains the differences between a creative work and a trivial work, therefore not all creations are authentic and not are subject for their protection.[3] Also, Resolution No. 0148-2008/TPI-INDECOPI sets to the drawings of common use cannot pass the attributes of individuality, making the signatures look the same as the concept of uncopyrighted drawings.

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COM:SIG Russia


OK. Signature used for expression of will, for identification, or in similar cases is a legal or technical tool, it is not work of science, literature, or art, so it is not copyrightable.

 Depend on case. Signature used for other purposes can be protected depending on its creativity.

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COM:SIG South Korea

South Korea

OK for a typical signature: The Supreme Court of South Korea has ruled that typefaces are not protected by copyright.[4]

 Not OK for calligraphic signatures: According to Copyright Act Article 4, calligraphy is protected by copyright (See also Commons:Copyright rules by territory/South Korea § Types of protected work).

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COM:SIG Taiwan


 Not OK: This government regulation (archived from original) lists handwriting and calligraphy as examples of artistic works that are subject to copyright protection.

Common law countries

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.

 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 (apparently copyrighted) shield device can be accorded artistic copyright.
  • Professor Charles Oppenheim of de Montfort University: "graphic works, photographs, sculptures and collages are protected regardless of artistic merit. Your signature is an artistic work, as you always suspected" See presentation of Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).
  • 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.
  • The E. Chambré Hardman Archive Copyright Clinic page states that "Somebody’s signature is also thought of as an artistic work, rather than a literary work."

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

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

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

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 defense 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.
  1. ...[I]f the work has aesthetic elements that express thoughts and feelings through the selection of letters, the shape and size of the letters, the shading of the ink, the stroke of the brush, and the composition of the letters in combination with each other, it may be eligible for copyright protection as a work of art that shows the writer's individual expression. If the work has aesthetic elements that express ideas and feelings through the size of the ink, the shading of the ink, the movement or strokes of the brush, the composition of the letters in combination with each other, etc., it is considered to be a work of art in which the author's unique expression is expressed and can be protected by copyright.
  2. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named originalidadforsetti
  3. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Indecopi2015
  4. The Supreme Court of South Korea 94누5632