Copying the Copyrighted

The following is a guest post by Gerben Schoorl in response to my question “Can I Quote You? Public Domain and Internet Forums, Bulletin Boards, etc.

The starting point for my train of thought on this subject is the threshold for protection of “intellectual property”. This post will stick to copyright, since I have yet to come across any patentable material online and trademarks (generally requiring registration) form a class of their own. Database rights will be excluded; copying from them will generally be forbidden by the relevant ‘terms of use’.

To emphasize my point, the next paragraph is fully copied and pasted from online sources. I am quite sure that no legal action can be based on the absence of any ‘credits’, for the simple reason that the threshold requirements for legal protection of these factual bits & pieces are not met.

QUOTE Copyright protects works of authorship. To receive copyright/protection, such works must be ‘original’ and ‘fixed’ in a tangible medium (of expression). Facts are not protected by copyright, regardless of the amount of time/effort/money spent discovering those facts. Copyright protects originality, not effort (sweat of the brow). Copyright owners have no course of action against anyone who independently creates a duplicate of a copyrighted work. Fair use means using a portion of a copyrighted work for purposes of news reporting, parody, research and/or education about such work. This may be done without permission of the author. One will have to credit the source i.e. name the author of the work. UNQUOTE

Now then, hope that helps. This legal approach will not give you a definitive answer, but rest assured, definitive answers are hard to come by in IP. I remember one of my professors bringing ‘originals’ and ‘copies’ of designs to class and asking us which of the latter could be successfully litigated against. Flipping a coin turned out to give us the best estimate of the outcomes of the associated cases.

For written text, this may appear easier. They are by definition “fixed”. Anything above the “originality” threshold will thus enjoy protection from copyright law. In assessing the pre- or absence of originality, one will definitely consider its length. When discussing factual subjects (the quotes above), originality may require a considerable amount of words, since anyone discussing such subjects will use more or less the same wording. For others (poetry), a few words can form a solid rock of originality. A real problem arises though when discussing ‘quotes’ which are taken from larger texts, such as webpages, articles or even books. Exploring that road will take us into the quicksand and I will avoid that by mentioning that Google has just decided to spend 125 million dollar to settle the “snippet” lawsuit around its Book Search feature. That goes to show that there are no definitive answers on the length which maybe taken from such texts.

Finally and stepping away from the legal approach: I’m sure that due care in these matters will primarily be based on the desire to preserve one’s good name, not on fear of legal consequences. An intelligently cut snippet, used as a search term, will expose plagiarism at the speed of light, as any teacher will tell us.

Let’s end this post with a classic quote, possibly copyrighted, but not requiring any credit: “Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-That’s All Folks!”

Thanks, Gerben!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Marilyn Z. Tomlins January 18, 2009 at 2:43 am

Hi Ted —

Hope you are well …
I find this post very interesting because I often discover articles I’ve written for websites being reproduced on other websites. My initial flattery when this happened has, I must admit, developed into irritation. Yet, I’ve come to believe that the Web is a “free for all” with no-one giving copyright laws the slightest thought.

All best
Marilyn Z. Tomlins


Charlotte Web Development January 25, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Marilyn, It’s interesting to revisit this topic in light of the recent SOPA fiasco.

Hope you’re doing well!


Marilyn January 25, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Vow January 2009 … January 2012 …

I am still upset (actually more so than in 2009) at how what I write on my website (blog) is being borrowed (for use of a better word) by others. It’s my research and my expertise that is being used. The internet has become a free for all in fact.

I’m okay. Hope you are too.
All best


Charlotte Web Development January 25, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I think this might make an interesting article; Steps you can take to keep your digital property your own.

I’ll see what I can dig up and let you know.


CWD February 4, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Thanks, Marilyn! How goes the book?


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