OMG copyright
January 7, 2006 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Copyright filter: If I were to use information from someone's commercially published work to provide explanatory footnotes in my own commercially published work, what are the copyright/royalty implications in the context of Canadian and American copyright law? What must I do in addition to referencing the work?
posted by Krrrlson to Law & Government (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Information is not copyrightable; only the precise expression is. As long as you use your own wording, you're in the clear.
posted by kindall at 1:08 PM on January 7, 2006

There are none. You cannot copyright information. You can copyright the presentation of information, but if you're taking information from someone else's work and recontextualizing it in your work, copyright isn't relevant nor applied.
posted by Jairus at 1:08 PM on January 7, 2006

posted by Jairus at 1:08 PM on January 7, 2006

There's more to it than that. It depends on what Krrrlson means by "use".

If you mean largely copying the other text for your footnotes then you will have issues. You can't copy another text like that except for short quotes. If you were using the same original text as the actual footnote text throughout a document I doubt that would fly.

If you're just explaining what someone else wrote, however, and writing a summary of another text in the footnotes while referring to the original then that's fine.
posted by mikel at 1:36 PM on January 7, 2006

You cannot copyright information; only the precise expression of that information. If you use your own words, you're ok.

(the above is *not* a sufficient departure from kindall to be in the clear...get it?)
posted by notsnot at 1:38 PM on January 7, 2006

Knowledge itself is not copyrightable, only the exact formalization of that knowledge. You're fine.


Also, the only reason you need footnotes is to avoid charges of plagiarism which is a little different they copyright infringement.
posted by delmoi at 1:53 PM on January 7, 2006

Response by poster: I don't plan to use the wording of the original text - the footnotes will very briefly relay certain biographical details and historical facts. However, I learned about these details and facts by reading the source in question.
posted by Krrrlson at 1:54 PM on January 7, 2006

Also, the only reason you need footnotes is to avoid charges of plagiarism which is a little different they copyright infringement.

That's not all - if footnotes here means citations (and it seems it does), there are many other reasons. The most important is a matter of intellectual honesty - if someone else's idea influenced yours, you need to acknowledge this. If you don't it is tantamount to claiming the idea as entirely your own, a very dishonest thing to do, though completely distinct from plagiarism (academics who do this can get very bad reputations, and even incite larger splits within fields if their work becomes influential). Citations are also useful for readers to set your ideas in a larger context, and provide them with other things to read if they are trying to follow up your ideas. If you are proposing something outlandish or unusual, it can also be very helpful to cite people who've tried something similar, and so make your proposal seem less outlandish. In a way, plagiarism itself is the least of the issues.

If you're just citing and possibly using short quotes, you have no obligations under copyright law, as others have said. If you're using more, you need to get permission of the publisher (or maybe copyright holder, but most of the time acknowledgments that I see thank the publisher). Publishers seem to grant permission routinely if you're doing something reasonable, at least for academic work.
posted by advil at 2:35 PM on January 7, 2006

However, I learned about these details and facts by reading the source in question.

If the world only had books with original information (even allowing the use of source documents when the information appeared elsewhere), there would be mighty few non-fiction books. You're fine. Since you're not proposing to quote large chunks of text, all you need to do is acknowledge your source. Even then, the primary purpose of footnotes (for facts, not ideas) is to allow the read to (hypothetically) check little-known information. So, for example, if you got the date that the President Cleveland was re-elected from reading a given book, you should not (for a variety of reasons) cite that book; the information is widely published.
posted by WestCoaster at 3:41 PM on January 7, 2006

Facts are not copyrightable. You need have no reservations about using facts you glean from a source in your own work. (It is scientifically correct, but not at all legally required, to cite sources you use.)

Aside: There is a movement afoot to change this. The proposed changes are typically called "database protection" laws, and they in effect make facts copyrightable. If these laws pass, the answer to your question would change - it would no longer be possible to use facts you learn from a source without the explicit permission of that source. For instance, Major League Baseball compiles and publishes MLB game scores, so it would become illegal to tell someone "the Yankees won, 4-3" without the permission of Major League Baseball, even if you were present and watching the game. I am, unfortunately, not joking about this. Database protection proposals have been kicking around in the U.S. and elsewhere for many years.
posted by jellicle at 4:07 PM on January 7, 2006

The database protection proposals are really nothing new. I believe it used to be possible to copyright collections of facts based on a "sweat of the brow" argument. That is, if it cost you a lot of money or effort to assemble the facts, the result was copyrightable. IIRC there was a case involving phone books (an outside publisher basically copied the listings published in the phone company's book) in which this was overturned. (I am not a lawyer; this is from memory of what the lawyers said in a copyright case I was involved in.)
posted by kindall at 4:15 PM on January 7, 2006

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