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Obtaining Copyright Permission

What you need to know before using someone else's data

Q: I'm creating content for a members-only site accessible to people whose employers have purchased access. I'd like to know if I can create some "best of" lists (golf courses, spas, restaurants) and add information to some of the listings, such as "Best Golf Course in the State, 1998, per Golf Digest" or "XX Magazine's Top 50 Wines." These lists are either created via my own research (the golf list) or taken from a publication (the wine list). Must I obtain permissions from every quoted "expert"?

A: Whenever you "borrow" content from someone else (including a list), you can assume it's protected by copyright law, which protects unique expression in print, sound, graphics, etc. Some things you can borrow; others you can't. Two elements are key: how much you borrow and how you use it.

There's a concept in copyright law called "fair use," by which you can use a small portion of a work without seeking the creator's permission. But beware if you copy something for commercial use-it's less likely to be "fair." Generally, if you copy a crucial portion of text, you'll get to copy less of it.

Your content will be lists of "best picks" in several categories. Obviously, lists are composed of data. No one can copyright raw data or basic facts. What makes something copyrightable is the arrangement of that data-a use that makes the naked facts unique. A "best of" list could be such a personalization.

For example: Aimee is a hairstylist with 20 years' experience and lots of famous clients. Aimee decides she's tired of highlighting and serving as an informal divorce court and becomes a consultant. Her Web site contains "Aimee's Top 10 Hair Sites," for which she had to sift through and evaluate 95 hair sites. Aimee's judgment (based on her experience) and opinions are what her Top 10 list is built on, so it's unique and copyrightable. It started out as raw data and ended up as a personal guide.

Resource Guide
Sort out the details of copyrighting with these books:
The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook by Lloyd J. Jasin and Steve C. Schecter
Copyright Plain & Simple by Cheryl Besenjak

What does this mean to you? If you quote directly and credit the source, you're probably OK. If you don't want to attribute your picks to someone else, you'll have to re-format the raw data gleaned from other sources so it's your own product, not a version of someone else's.

Sometimes getting permission isn't as tough as you think. The originator may want the exposure of wider publication, properly credited. But knowing who holds the copyright and respecting their rights is important. It's spawned an entire group of people who arrange content licensing or copyright assignments to prevent infringement disputes. If you decide you need a substantial portion of someone's copyrighted text, you can license it for a fee.

So some lists can be yours, but avoid wholesale "borrowing" of copyrighted material. Data is everywhere; mold it into your own special product.

For more on copyrighting, visit the U.S. Copyright Office's Web site at www.loc.gov/copyright or the Copyright Clearance Center's site at www.copyright.com.

Joan E. Lisante is an attorney and freelance writer who lives in the Washington, DC, area. She writes consumer-related legal features for The Washington Post, the Plain Dealer, the Spokane Spokesman-Review and the Toledo Blade (Ohio). She is also a contributing editor to LawStreet.com and ConsumerAffairs.com.
In her practice, Lisante is counsel to ConsumerAffairs.com and was counsel for Zapnews, a fax-based customized news service for radio stations. Previously, she served as Assistant District Attorney in Queens County, New York, and Deputy District Attorney in Nassau County, New York.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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