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Extrapolating info from Internet forums.

Posted: Thu Jun 04, 2020 9:46 am
by WebExaminer
My first post here

By way of introduction, I’ve written four factual books over the years and managed to get my head around copyright law regarding them. (But I once had an angry letter threatening legal action because I’d done a 169-word summary of two pages of a book!)

Currently I’m working on a book that embraces my personal reminiscences and information from various websites. No problem with most of these, but there’s one forum I’m drawing on a lot.

I’m approaching the forum to see how close – or distant – our views are on copyright, but its founder is a shadowy figure in the background. I’m on good terms with the current Moderator but fell out big-time with his predecessor who remains its main Administrator. Some years ago, he stated "What's on *****.com is held in copyright by both the author and the site.” Ironically over the years I’ve put in far more to the forum than I’m taking out and I'm freely drawing on my own posts, which I can surely do?

My working draft includes six direct quotes of posts and I can approach most of their authors for approval. I think that receiving their consent would absolve me from seeking that of the forum? Or I could paraphrase the posts or give the gist of their meaning. No problem for me.

I’ve “mixed in” info from the forum with other material, and there are a couple of sections that summarise the contents of two particular sub-forums. I include various references, usually in complimentary terms, to the forum as a whole and make it clear that some of my info comes from it.

In the event of non-co-operation from the forum regarding copyright, to what extent can I take information from it, presenting shortened forms or using just a few words here, there and everywhere? I think that this would constitute “reasonable use”, but am conscious of those two sections that are obviously dependent on the forum. If need be, I can reduce these to their bare bones.

I’m aware of differences between paraphrasing, summaries, and précises – I have done all three.

I’ve searched Copyright Aid for comparable topics and found several that came close to what I'm asking, but I suspect that "fair usage" of Web material remains a grey area.

Perhaps CopyRight Aid Admin might care to express their own views about someone adopting my approach to its content?

Thanks in advance for your opinions.

Re: Extrapolating info from Internet forums.

Posted: Thu Jun 04, 2020 12:47 pm
by AndyJ
Hi WebExaminer,

As far as the law is concerned, there's no difference between something posted on a web forum and something published in, for instance, a book. Provided that the text is the author's own work and rises above the threshold of banality, then it will attract copyright protection and that right belongs to the author alone. Where a website is concerned, the site's terms and conditions will quite often insist that the author, in posting their work, expressly licenses the website to publish the work and if necessary, make copies of it (eg for backup purposes and similar technical reasons). Such licences cannot bestow on the website owner any control over what may be done with the contents of postings by third parties; that right remains with the author unless he or she expressly assigns the reproduction right to the website admin in writing. Ticking a box to say that you have read the t&cs or, worse still, being able to post without having read the t&cs beforehand, cannot equate to a written assignment.

So, with that as the background you can freely use any content which you yourself authored, and where you get the permission of other posters, their content also. The forum itself can, at most, only claim copyright in those parts of the site which the website owner and/or their staff have personally authored (see below for comments about database rights).

That just leaves the group of postings which you would like to use but either you cannot contact the authors or they have refused permission. Provided that you comply with the fair dealing rules, you may take limited quotations by virtue of section 30 (1ZA) of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. The basic rules are that you acknowledge the source of the quote (ie the author or his/her handle), and that you use no more than is strictly necessary for your purposes. Where, effectively, you need to quote pretty much the entirety of a particular posting, this may be fair dealing provided that a disinterested third person would think it was reasonable in the circumstances. Clearly if the person you wish to quote is a renown authority on a subject, then his or her words used verbatim may carry greater credibility as compared to 'some random anonymous bloke on a forum says ...' However, where someone has refused permission you should tread more carefully than where you have not been able to contact an author, for the simple reason that someone who has thought about the issue and taken to trouble to deny permission is far more likely to be upset if you appear to have ignored his/her wishes. But this is where the internet diverges slightly from the paper world of published books and magazines etc. 'Authors' on internet forums will rarely be posting in a professional capacity and will equally rarely be aware of or care about the copyright they hold, whereas an author of a book or magazine article may make their living from such writing and will expect their rights to be respected. The best way to judge whether something is fair dealing is to stand back and examine, objectively, whether you are putting in more work than the authors you wish to quote. By drawing on a wide range of sources for your research you can usually achieve more contrast and depth in the discussion of your subject matter than if you just regurgitate the opinions or assertions of single individual for your own gain.

That leads me on the subject of database right. Database right can exist where someone assembles a quantity of data (which itself may or may not be protected by copyright) into a structure which can be accessed in a searchable manner, and in doing so has expended resources (such as money or time or skill) in order to populate the database. You can read more about database right here: The Copyright and Rights in Databases Regulations 1997. From Part 3 of the Regulations you can see that in most cases a forum will not attract database right because the forum admin will not have expended any resources in the actual process of obtaining, verifying or presenting the contents of the database. That will be the result of the efforts of the authors of the individual postings. The website owner is merely acting as a facilitator. However there may be cases in which forum admins carefully select and curate the information or data which appears there, and so in these limited circumstances, they may be entitled to claim database right. Nonetheless, just as with copyright, there are similar fair dealing rules which allow parts of a database to be exploited in some circumstances.

I hope this answers your question.

Re: Extrapolating info from Internet forums.

Posted: Thu Jun 04, 2020 1:47 pm
by WebExaminer
Andy, thanks for your prompt and comprehensive reply. My head was beginning to ache after trying to research the topic for myself. What you say is reassuring, rather more so than I'd hoped.

I'd raised this matter on the Great War Forum, whose mods are, understandably, very hot about posts of photos and quotes that may, or may not, be in copyright. Not that I wanted to use material on their website, but I just sought advice about my current situation. Admin there advised "Although we retain use of content for the purposes of the forum, copyright remains with the poster. Any 'reasonable use' rules would apply and we would suggest that the post author be contacted in respect of use of large sections of their research. Where possible reference should be made to the thread title, with a link to the thread."

Someone also added that it would be desirable to name the author of any quoted post. In fact he's one of the very few members to use a recognisable name; most of us use soubriquets, and "Admin" himself has adopted the title "ss002d6252" :roll: which would look a bit funny in a citation.

Thanks again, Andy.

Re: Extrapolating info from Internet forums.

Posted: Thu Jun 04, 2020 4:47 pm
by AndyJ
Hi WebExaminer,

I'm glad you find my earlier reply useful. The Great War Forum Admin you quoted has got it spot on. Don't worry if you don't know a poster's real name, and can only refer to a pretty bizarre username. That is all the law requires you to do, and indeed the law on copyright has always acknowledged authors may use pseudonyms; in the past such famous names as George Eliot and Saki were the 'ss002d6252' of their day.

Good luck with your project.

Re: Extrapolating info from Internet forums.

Posted: Sun Jun 07, 2020 11:28 am
by WebExaminer
I'm not seeking further guidance (not for the moment, anyway), but let me indulge my whimsy in these leisured times.

A couple of the people whose posts I want to quote have died, so won't be bothered if I print what they wrote - though their copyright extends for another 68 years or so (if I recall correctly). It would be unlikely if anyone was to assert the deceased's rights.

And many of the posts I'm referring to contain hyperlinks to local news websites and other forums, with a selected quote to show what's in the link. Frustratingly, some links no longer work and it may be that, apart from the selected quote, nothing of the original exists (unless it also appeared in print form). And some posts were quickly deleted by Admin (though not before I'd noted their contents) or have disappeared during a tidy-up of the forum. Can there be copyright of something that no longer exists?

Rhetorical questions!

Re: Extrapolating info from Internet forums.

Posted: Sun Jun 07, 2020 2:48 pm
by AndyJ
Hi WebExaminer,

Hypothetical questions are valid!

As you say, after someone has died it becomes a matter of judgement whether their heirs would ever wish to enforce copyright even if they were aware that it existed. On balance I think it is highly unlikely in the case of postings on forum unless the poster was relatively famous.

And on your second hypothetical, yes copyright can still exist, because although the original work may have perished, you have a copy of it, as may a few other members of the same forum. Equally there may, conceivably, be a copy on the WayBack machine or the British Library's archive, or, less likely, in the backups of the forum itself. Indeed the original poster may have saved a copy of what he/she wrote, offline. I have occasionally done that for reference purposes. It's amazing how persistent some relatively trivial things can be once they are posted on the internet - as some politicians find out when their old tweets come back to haunt them.

Obviously the lack of an easily accessible copy of a work can make it even less likely that an heir would be aware of any infringement or fair dealing use of the work. As far as citing a 'disappeared' work is concerned, the best practice would still be to name the author or his/her handle, and the website where it originally appeared.

Re: Extrapolating info from Internet forums.

Posted: Sun Jun 07, 2020 4:05 pm
by WebExaminer
Thanks again, Andy

As it happens, there's one 19-year-old quote I'm interested in using that I got from the Wayback Machine, and the info was reproduced on the forum from which I'm taking bits & pieces of detail. A few years ago, someone provided me with a link to it on the Wayback Machine, which luckily I bookmarked. I've tried finding the same info from scratch by entering various search times and even the old website address, but never got very far. I gather from others that the search functions could do with some improving.