License for code submitting on github


I wanted to make a custom implementation of the sunburst example here, but wanted to know if it needed to be released under a particular license. This was kind of already answered here, but since there was no license attached to the zoomable post I wanted to make sure that it would still be alright to release it under MIT or Apache, or if I’m restricted to a particular license.



According to this post Copyright and software licenses, the terms of service lead to the conclusion that the sunburst example is “unlicensed” (all rights reserved by the original author). Therefore the activity of copy-pasting the code outside of observable and re-releasing it under MIT or Apache license is technically illegal.

I’m not a lawyer, so this interpretation may be wrong. Please, someone correct me if I’m wrong here!

No laws (to my knowledge) make “copy-pasting the code” illegal. “Fair use” covers a lot of cases, including (but not limited to) research and teaching : see

Furthermore, since the OP is about a “custom implementation”, copyright laws probably even don’t apply in that case. (Patent laws are a different kind of abomination beast.)

Speaking generically about reusing notebooks that were not explicitely licenced, you might want to ask the author in person if they would grant you (or the public) an authorization. It’s something I’ve done several times already on Observable, always with kind responses (example). It can lead to new collaborations, and the original author will even often revise their notebook!

I’m all for sharing —and sharing a lot—, but I’d be rather cross, as an author, if someone took my not-explicitely-licenced project and used an obscure ToS paragraph against me.


Not the copy-pasting, but definitely the relicensing part.

I agree. And if you want to go above and beyond, perhaps suggest a license (e.g. ISC, MIT). Many authors (understandably) really don’t want to bother with the intricacies of licensing, to the detriment of those wanting to build on their code.


Indeed, the act of “copy-pasting the code” itself would not be illegal, but re-publishing the work (or any derived work such as a “custom implementation”) under any licence with a different copyright holder, or using it as the starting point for a proprietary project that you then deliver to a client (for example in freelancing work or in development of proprietary products), would not be legal AFIAK. Either of those would be considered Plagiarism or infringement of copyright law.

While most authors would probably not mind if others copy-paste their work from Observable into commercial software, and would probably not call out the copyright law, professionals cannot make this assumption and need to be careful about licensing. This is why I cannot, for example, use any code whatsoever from Observable (that’s not explicitly permissively licensed) in any client projects that I work on. And neither can any other freelancer or professional developer. The livespan of unlicensed code within Observable is effectively limited to exist solely within Observable, as far as I can tell.

It would be absolutely incredible if all public content in Observable were permissively licensed (e.g. MIT). The platform would be infinitely more valuable to professionals.

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Even for permissively licensed code you’ll want to reference the pinned notebook (i.e. notebook URL including the @VERSION suffix).
A notebook author can always remove a license and republish, and there is currently no way to list old versions of a notebook. But 24 hours after a notebook has been published both its URL and its version states become immutable. As such you can safely refer to a specific notebook version.


Related discussion in StackOverflow


Closing the loop here: we shipped support for licensing notebooks today, and the zoomable sunburst notebook is now released under the permissive ISC license. Enjoy!

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