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March 22, 2011 6:08 AM   Subscribe

How do I go about (legally) compiling a small glossary with intent to publish?

I have an idea for a small dictionary/glossary of archaic and old-fashioned English words which appear in Masonic lectures and ceremonies; I have found that a lot of Masons hear these words for years and sometimes even memorize them without even knowing what they mean, and I'd like to put together a booklet explaining them to new members.

Is this as simple as taking a public domain English dictionary from Project Gutenberg and picking out the definitions I need? (For example, this version of Webster's dictionary.) The fact that Webster still exists as an entity (in the form of Merriam-Webster) makes me a little uneasy.

This is really just a pet project and I am probably over-thinking it; I'd like to make it available on Lulu or some other self-publishing site, but I have no illusions that I'll sell many (if any) copies or make any money on it. Nevertheless, I would really like to avoid any legal nastygrams over copyright issues. I am in the United States.
posted by usonian to Law & Government (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
From the main page of PG: "Our ebooks are free in the United States because their copyright has expired. They may not be free of copyright in other countries." Will your glossary be available (either freely or for sale) outsde the United States? (Caveat: I know nothing about Lulu.) If so, if you want to be totally safe, make sure they're in the public domain in those other countries as well.

If it will be available only in the US, and/or you've confirmed the public domain status of your source(s) in other countries, you should be perfectly fine.

A lot of early Wikipedia articles were exact copies of a public domain encyclopedia (the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica, IIRC).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:38 AM on March 22, 2011

Dictionaries and the like are, of course, both covered by copyright, both as regards the wording of their definition as well as layout, which means you cannot have exactly the same words (even with different definitions) as a copyright work. The secret as many terminologists/lexicographers will tell you, is to take someone else's definitions and rewrite them.
posted by TheRaven at 6:42 AM on March 22, 2011

Lists of words aren't, inherently, copyrightable*. The meanings of words aren't inherently copyrightable, either. The way the definitions are written is copyrightable, which is why there are copyright warnings in dictionaries.

So, if you were to take a list of words -- even from a copyrighted book -- and write your own definitions, you should be pretty much in the clear.

As for taking previously-written definitions: in the United States, anything published prior to 1923 is public domain, and can be used without payment, or even crediting your source, technically. Even if Webster's is still around, their 1911 edition is public domain today. I wouldn't trust Gutenberg's claims of public domain strictly (I think their disclaimer even covers that), so do your own research.

IANAL, of course.

* they are trademarkable, which is entirely different from copyright and another can of worms
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:44 AM on March 22, 2011

I work in dictionary-making: I've done work for several companies with "Webster" in their names. You can definitely do this with the 1913 Webster that you've linked; it is the venerable source of a zillion weird little variants in the same vein as what you're proposing. You will not get a nastygram for using that public-domain data. The "Webster's" trademark was even diluted beyond enforceability many years ago: the only way M-W would waste their time drafting a nastygram to you would be if you called it Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Masonic Archaisms.
posted by xueexueg at 6:49 AM on March 22, 2011

Thank you, hive mind! I know YANML, but it's nice to get a consensus that matches what I had been more or less planning to do. If I ever get around to making this happen, I'll post it in MeFi projects.
posted by usonian at 11:51 AM on March 22, 2011

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