April 25, 2007

Fair Use or Copyright Infringement?

Shelley Batts at Retrospectiacle reported on a paper by Chanjirakul et al in The Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. She used a table and one panel of charts from the article. Her post was a more or less a straight forward report. For her efforts, she received an email threatening her with legal action if she did not remove the table and the charts.

The email was not a request. It was a threat. You can read it and her reply. She removed the offending graphics and replaced them with a table and chart of her own making which seemed to satisfy the sensitive editors. Now I am not a lawyer but it is hard for me to see anything other than "fair use" in Batts' original post. Mark Chu-Carroll of Good Math, Bad Math responded to all this with a post of his own that expresses my own thoughts very well.

In a sane world, this would be a clear case of "fair use": Shelley was not stealing or taking credit for anyone's work. She did not reprint the article. She did not write about the work without giving credit to the original authors: she provided a full and appropriate citation of the article. All she was doing is what many bloggers do regularly: she was writing about an interesting piece of research that had been published in her area. But her article doesn't fit the spin that the authors/publishers wanted to put on it. So they resorted to legal threats to try to shut her down.

Please read Chu-Carroll's complete post.

A small independent blogger is forced to take such threats very seriously. The cost of saying, "So sue me," is just too high even if you win. These kinds of threats are often used by the more powerful to limit the abilities of the less powerful to express themselves.

Having said that, I do believe that as bloggers we have an obligation to play by the rules and make sure that we do not accidentally assume that our "Creative Commons License" is the standard of the world. It isn't. If we have any question about fair use we should ask the publisher. As I said, in this case, if I were Batt, I would have thought that what I used was well within fair use. And larger publishing firms with old-fashioned copyrights need to remember that they can always threaten legal action later. A simple request, with a reasonable explanation, works most of the time. When it works, one often generates good will rather than ill will.

By the way, you might want to check out the Google cache of Batts' original post if it is still there. I have no idea how long it will be up as a cached document.

Update: April 26, 2007, 3:01 PST
It appears that the publisher has apologized. Good for them. You can read about it at Retrospectacle. Life goes on, one small victory at a time

Posted by Duane Smith at April 25, 2007 7:35 PM | Read more on Odds and Ends |

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Tracked on April 26, 2007 5:56 AM


I copy & paste pictures & graphs from published papers frequently. If I ever received such a threat from a publisher, I would probably ignore it first, to see how far they'd go. They could simply be bluffing.

Posted by: Aydin at April 26, 2007 8:19 AM

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