Articles / A Plea for Clear Theme Copy…

A Plea for Clear Theme Copyrights

This is a brief request on behalf of distribution maintainers, intended for those who produce and edit themes and their content. In it, I make a request for clarity and thoroughness in the copyright and license terms applied to themes, to make it easier to include your themes in Free Software distributions.

Filling a gap, I recently set out to prepare a package of Sawfish themes for inclusion in the Debian GNU/Linux distribution. Think what you may of the Debian packaging process, the technical side of the project has proved to be the easy part. Unexpectedly, I’ve spent far more time trying to identify the copyrights on themes and to determine the licenses under which they are available.

The basic problem is that many theme authors, having produced a shiny new theme for a window manager, tend to tuck in a quick README with a few sentences of explanation, then post it somewhere. While nearly every theme mentions the author’s name, few give an explicit copyright, and almost none indicate the license terms under which the theme has been released.

Taking a conservative view of intellectual property law (as distributions such as Debian are obliged to do), just because a theme was posted doesn’t give me any right to use it, much less redistribute it. To pass it on, I need explicit permission, and I need to be able to properly credit the copyright to the author. Posting it on a site that lists a license (e.g., freshmeat) helps, but the license is too easily separated from the content – one download, and it’s gone.

This becomes especially important when themes are built from other themes. Rolling up a long chain of authors can be difficult, especially if a theme has been evolving for a long time. For example, the “Dome” series of tabbed Sawfish window themes has seen a dozen revisions by at least eight authors. This makes for very tired package maintainers. In preparing Debian’s sawfish-themes package, I’ve tried to contact perhaps two dozen theme authors. Amongst other things, I’ve found that theme authors, as a group, are really nice folks. Every author who returned my mail was entirely friendly and affable, generally happy to see the themes redistributed, and willing to clear up all copyright and license issues. Some were more helpful yet, leading me through the histories of certain themes and pointing me to previous authors. Sadly, some authors’ email addresses are no longer functional, or were never included; when I couldn’t contact the authors, I couldn’t include the theme. Some excellent themes had to be excluded for this reason.

I don’t wish to get into the merits of the various licenses here, but it does help the distribution makers if you pick compatible licenses (in Debian’s case, those compatible with the Debian Free Software Guidelines). Authors of themes for the Free Software world most often use the GPL, which works just fine. One thing to avoid, common in the world of theming for proprietary software, is to mark a theme “free for noncommercial use”. Such a license is incompatible with every Open Source license and cannot be included in a distribution based thereon.

To help distributions keep the license terms clear, so we can include your themes, here are some suggestions:

On every text-based theme file where comments are possible, include your copyright, as in “Copyright (c) 2002 by John A. Smith \”, and a pointer to where the license terms can be found. Whenever you include content from elsewhere – such as images from another theme – make it clear where they came from, and who made them. Place their copyright and license notices alongside yours. Clearly explain the lineage involved, and the nature of the derivation – “inspired by X” or “made to resemble Y”, compared to “titlebar and icons taken from Z.”

Don’t reuse other people’s images or code unless they released it under a license you’re prepared to honor (again, any OSS license is generally ideal.)

If your window manager/application’s theme format makes it possible, include a README or something comparable (e.g., Enlightenment’s ABOUT/ theme dox). In it, along with whatever else you have to say, give the copyright as above, the terms under which you’re releasing the theme, and a way you can be contacted, such as your email address. If you’ve incorporated images or other binary content from elsewhere, indicate which files they are and the copyright/licenses for them.

Should you opt to use the GPL or LGPL, the Free Software Foundation has an excellent explanation of how to apply the license and where to put the notices; see Even if you use another license, the instructions given there are helpful.

These aren’t exciting details, especially when you’ve prepared an exciting new look for people’s desktops, but it’s usually pretty easy to do, and it can help distro maintainers spread your themes far and wide. You wouldn’t release software without a license. Take a moment and tend to your themes, also.

Recent comments

26 Jan 2008 04:29 Avatar sensitiv

Not a dog on the road ...

> Correct me if am wrong, but if somebody

> puts something in public view and does

> not attach a copyright to it is it not

> public domain?

Sorry, I found this pretty funny. It would be like going on a road and seeing something like a dog, car or whatever ... and just saying it does not have a label, so I can take or use it.

I admit: In many cases it was the intention of the author, that you just can take it. But - unless there is at least a clear indicator of this whish - I would give everyone the good advice to be extremely careful. Otherwise it may cost a lot of money for legal troubles.

08 Feb 2007 05:17 Avatar gulags

Credit where credit is due
Copyright in all forms has always been something of a double edged sword and I think the importance depends on your platform.

If I wrote a song which charted at number one then I definitely want to be seen as the copyright holder as I would earn money. Clearly any kind of artist deserves credit for their work and this article calls for clarity in this particular scenario. It could be argued that derivative works are sometimes created by 'standing on the shoulders of giants' and that the bulk of work has already been done by the original author. The opposing argument says that the derivation might be considered superior to the original (e.g. Shakespeare).

Perhaps I am labouring the point. We are talking about free open source distributions and in principle I agree with the purpose of the article that clarity is important. Credit where credit is due!
Gulag (

24 May 2005 07:02 Avatar lucc

Theme Copyrights - Artistic License..
This is actually a rather difficult issue. As a former graphics artist (classical fashion, woodblock and etchings), we had this discussion back in 1993 when we started producing digital versions of our artwork. We actually deliberatly made "distorted" versions of the originals as we were afraid our ideas would be "stolen". That was then. Today the trend has changed. One can view images in great details, and then order the original online. But i digress. I create themes for GNU Window Maker, and I make them available for free online. The images are often from classic art or from publically available sites. I make a theme to make my desktop look and feel better - and I hope others would like to share the expirience. To copyright a theme seems rather odd to me, unless the holder is a major billion dollar company with (TM) Logos and bells and whistles. An artistic theme should really not be copyrighted (imnsho) since the material used is not copyrighted. Of course an artist who creates a piece of art with referances to an older artist still holds the copyright to his own "masterpiece" but that is a different matter (to me). My webpages state that the themes are (c) yours truly, but the copyright notices clearifies this stating that users are free to do whatever they want with them. I really don't care. My themes are just meant to be desktop enhancements to make the daily work feel a bit easier.. we actually own too much. We want to own everything, we attach our names to the wierdest things claming "if it bears my name, it must be mine".. so we create another fence. Theme Copyrights? What a waste of time and resources..

With Kind regards..

Luke Th. Bullock

01 Aug 2003 10:21 Avatar dunbar

Copyright efforts can also turn here

21 Nov 2002 04:51 Avatar Jodrell

Re: So many choices.

> I understand you can't give 'legal'
> advice, but some sort of License FAQ
> would be helpful. I was unsure of how
> to license a theme based on a
> usenet-posted jpeg, and now I am curious
> as to the general aims and differences
> in the myriad license options on your
> projects pages.

If your theme is based on someone else's copyrighted work, then distributing your theme may be in breach of the original author's copyright.

You should always make sure that the author has given permission before creating a derivative work. While it's fine to take something and modify it for your own use, making it available to others requires that the original author gives consent.

A big problem I have with a lot of the digitial art out there is not that it's heaviliy derivative, with people using bits of other people's work (since that's natural in an environment where sharing is a good thing (, but that they almost never get consent to do so.

Over at ( they've had a lot of trouble with this, and have had to purge thousands of submissions because of copyright violation.

So always make sure you get consent before publishing a derivate work.


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