Partially Off Topic: Legal Status of Excerpts in Dictionaries and Quotation Books

Tue Nov 30 01:18:11 UTC 2010

        The Copyright Office's webpage is actually quite accurate,
except for the perhaps overly cautious advice in the final paragraph.
Under Section 107 of the copyright law, the fair use of a copyrighted
work is not an infringement of copyright.  In determining whether a use
is a fair use, the following factors apply:

        (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such
use is of a
commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
        (2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
        (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in
relation to the copyrighted
work as a whole; and
        (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value
of the copyrighted

        Ordinarily, I wouldn't think that there would be much question
that a quotation in a book of quotations or an historical dictionary
would be a fair use.  However, questions might arise with short poems or
song lyrics, or other very short works, if the quotation is significant
in relationship to the entire work.  For example, YBQ includes the
entirety of the Gettysburg Address.  That's in the public domain, of
course, but questions could arise if it were not.  Conversely, the song
"Happy Birthday to You," which has an aggressive copyright holder, is
listed only by title.  There is some question as to the validity of its
copyright, but I daresay that Yale University Press has no interest in
having the test case.

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
Of Garson O'Toole
Sent: Monday, November 29, 2010 7:28 PM
Subject: Partially Off Topic: Legal Status of Excerpts in Dictionaries
and Quotation Books

Dictionaries like the OED contain an enormous number of example
sentences extracted from copyrighted texts. Quotation books also
contain large numbers of copyrighted passages. I thought this use was
allowed in the United States under the "fair use" doctrine, but I
cannot point to a specific legal ruling.

The webpage at the U.S Copyright Office about Fair Use is ambiguous
and tentative:

Could an editor, publisher, or lawyer share thoughts on this topic?
Does the OED contact authors to clear rights to sentences? Does the
YBQ obtain permission from writers to include specific quotations?
Have publishers or authors received warning letters from lawyers?

The American Dialect Society -

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