Publishing a 50 page summary of a textbook?
November 10, 2011 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Does producing and publishing a free "Cliffnotes" type document sound legal?

Hey friends,

I have been reading a fairly technical textbook for the last few months and taking detailed notes along the way. Now that I have these notes, I thought that I might type them up and publish them as a free kindle document, which could be read independently or as a companion to the textbook. I figure it will be a good writing exercise and help me to solidify all that I've just learned - plus it might make a nice bullet point on a resume.

Absolutely none of the information in the "book," which will be maybe 40 or 50 pages tops, will be mine. I will follow the format of the current textbook, paraphrasing and simplifying things, and re-sketch the significant graphs onto paper then scan them into the document. I will of course give full credit of where the information came from, and I won't directly take any images or use text verbatim - but I will paraphrase and re-draw.

Does that sound legal? Should I try (likely fail) to get permission of the publisher?

I'm not looking for formal legal advice and I'm obviously not going to hold anyone here accountable for what they tell me. I just want to know if it's "yes, that sounds 100% definitely fine" versus "you might get yelled at" category. If there's any risk, I'll just try (fail) to get the author's permission & move on.

posted by Buckt to Law & Government (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
IANAL, but that sounds like copyright infringement to me.
posted by speedgraphic at 9:33 AM on November 10, 2011

You'd likely be okay with summarizing. You would not be okay with just flat out copying anything, including the graphs.

However you might be able to recreate the graphs from the original source material, if it's publically available (ie Census Data, or something like that).

But legal or not, your provider might get hit with a take-down notice, anyway. Depends on the publisher.
posted by empath at 9:35 AM on November 10, 2011

Not a lawyer, etc., etc.

It's iffy, yeah. The iffiest bit is this: "could be read independently"; the bit that might conceivably make it totally okay in the publisher's eyes -- regardless of actual legality re: authorship -- is that very next bit: "or as a companion to the textbook."

Replacing the textbook: Bad. Requiring the textbook: Good!

But, yeah, not legal advice, blah blah.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:40 AM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I just want to know if it's "yes, that sounds 100% definitely fine" versus "you might get yelled at" category. If there's any risk, I'll just try (fail) to get the author's permission & move on.

As with anything like this, the question "Is this legal?" is a lot less important than the the question "What will the rights holder do when they see this?" Unless you explicitly sign a deal with the rights holder to license the material, the only way to know for sure that you are not violating copyright laws when you use their content is to get sued and have the court decide in your favor. It's less likely than if you were trying to make money from this, but any time you do something that involves using content from a major publisher, there is a non-zero chance that you will end up getting sued. It's much more likely that you will just get hit with a cease and desist or DMCA takedown notice, but there is pretty much never an instance where you can produce something based on a copyrighted work without a license agreement and be 100% certain that you won't have to spend money to defend yourself in court.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:25 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think whether or not summarizing copyrighted content in the way you propose constitutes copyright infringement is a close enough question that I personally would stay away from doing it.

On one hand, copyright protects expressions of ideas rather than ideas themselves - so if the summary merely recaps the ideas and not their expression, there's an argument that the summary is non-infringing. But on the other hand, under 17 U.S.C. ยง 106(2), copyright holders have the exclusive right to prepare derivative works of their copyrighted work. A derivative work is "a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted." 17 U.S.C. 101 (emphasis added). An abridgement of a copyrighted work thus seems to be prima facie infringing, unless it's fair use. And while the fair use analysis is usually open-ended enough that it's tough to make any predictions with certainty, off the cuff, to me some of the factors here suggest non-fair-use:

(1) Purpose & character of use - assume your use is educational and non-commercial, which weighs in favor of fair use;

(2) Nature of the copyrighted work - you are summarizing a factual and non-fictional work, which generally weighs in favor of fair use; but

(3) Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole - you are summarizing the entire copyrighted work, which weighs heavily against fair use; and

(4) Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work (the single most important factor of fair use) - I can see an argument that if you are summarizing the whole book (i.e., your point that it might be a document "which could be read independently"), that's pretty much the definition of providing a substitute for the copyrighted work, which risks impairment of the market for the copyrighted work. That by itself, if true, would probably be enough to knock out fair use.
posted by Pontius Pilate at 12:09 PM on November 10, 2011

Copyright is an issue, as others have discussed. But so is trademark.

The publisher is going to be concerned not only about the potential use of their content, but about the publication of anything which might lead consumers to conclude was officially sanctioned by the publisher.

IAAL, and though IANYL, I can tell you without really offering legal advice that yes, there is risk here. The risk is that even if you can prevail on the merits, you may well get yourself sued and need to incur significant expense in vindicating your rights. I can't tell you how likely that is to happen, but it's a real risk.
posted by valkyryn at 12:22 PM on November 10, 2011

IANYL (or a copyright expert) either. Personally, I think this sounds fine as long as you are careful not to use any text verbatim or to copy any graphs, graphics, or methods of presentation that are unique to the book. If you do sketch a graph because your notes wouldn't make sense without it, maybe modify the way it's presented and only include key information. And your idea of distributing it for free is definitely a good one. I don't think an author or publisher can really complain about you publishing your own personal notes that refer to their book, but don't copy anything from it. In fact, if you cite the original book in your version, and footnote drawings and complicated ideas by saying "see chapter 12 in the book", it might even be seen as a marketing tool for the book.
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:58 PM on November 10, 2011

Response by poster: Hrm, ok. I think I probably won't do it, then. Thanks for the advice!
posted by Buckt at 3:50 PM on November 10, 2011

I'd say (as an IP lawyer) more details are required for a proper answer ... but PontiusPilate is heading down the right path. Although, with a little care, I think you could do this in a way which would be quite defensibly non-infringing. I would need to look into it further (contact me if you are interested) but the condensation/abridgement aspect is probably more related to creative rather than technical works.
posted by jannw at 3:22 AM on November 11, 2011

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