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Boss Wants To Steal

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11 replies to this topic

#1 dragonlady7


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Posted 01 August 2003 - 07:59 AM

This isn't so much an SEO no-no as a general copyright-infringement issue.

I post a lot about my boss and what a nut he is. Well, he is. So..
OK, here's his latest thing. We make healthcare software, and thought it would be a good idea to put up a glossary of common medical terms etc. on our website. Especially since our sub-section of the industry suffers from a lack of language standardization, so everything can have three or four names.
Confusing, sure. A great idea to have a glossary, because then the spiders can read through it and index you for the terms you don't use.
Thing is, we're really short-staffed and have devoted more time than we had to the website.
His solution?
Well, a government body has a glossary online. We could just steal theirs, rewrite some of the content, and put it up on our site.
Stealing things makes me leery, but the boss assures me that it's a US Government publication and as such is in the public domain. So we can take it if we want and there's no need to get permission or anything.
He's right that the site itself mentions no copyright, but I pointed out that some of their definitions were taken from a copyrighted work, the citation to which was noted in their footer. He pooh-poohed it and said there weren't many like that, and he'd just re-word them.
This all just makes me nervous. Am I right to be concerned, or is he right that there's nothing to worry about? (Besides the inherent contradiction in my boss, a software provider, being generally pro-piracy.)

The only thing I can think about is a duplicate content filter. But the government site's glossary is on dynamic pages. I don't know how well-spidered it is. Ours would simply be a static page tacked into a subdirectory of our site and linked to from probably every page. And we would be changing quite a number of the definitions, and omitting a large number as well.

Thanks in advance...

#2 Scottie


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Posted 01 August 2003 - 08:07 AM

If it is a government site, they may be fine with you using the content.

Contact the site and ask. Often you can use the content as is as long as you give them credit and acknowledge the copyright. (Yes, it is a copyrighted work.)

#3 Alan Perkins

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Posted 01 August 2003 - 08:09 AM

It's a grey area.

Very little work is original. Most is based on developing others' ideas or combining two or three other ideas. Somewhere in this process the work becomes "yours". Where in the process this occurs, and what is yours and what remains "theirs", is open to legal challenge!

You certainly cannot replicate all or large chunks of others' work and claim it as your own.

Also, all Web pages are copyright unless they specifically relinquish that right - not the other way around.

So, you can use this government page as a basis for your own (e.g. give you some idea of what words to put in the glossary) but you cannot substantially copy it without their written permission. Why not ask them?

#4 dragonlady7


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Posted 01 August 2003 - 09:18 AM

I will ask the boss if I can at least ask them. He's a big believer in just taking things, which is one area where I don't get along too well with him. People will give you the most amazing stuff for free if you just ask nicely, and what's more will thank you for the opportunity. Why, these forums are an example. Information is a big example. If people have worked hard to become experts on a topic, they're proud to show off their knowledge, happy to help someone by sharing their knowledge, and eager to teach people the things they've learned-- especially if it's something that opinions can vary on. All you have to do is be minimally polite and you'll get everything you need.
The boss doesn't generally see things that way, but perhaps if I present it right he'll let me...

#5 Thanol


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Posted 01 August 2003 - 10:02 AM

Your boss seriously needs therapy.

#6 Scottie


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Posted 01 August 2003 - 10:21 AM

You can certainly use their glossary as a starting point for building yours. As Alan pointed out, few things are truly original thoughts, especially with definitions and terminology- creativity would certainly make it hard to be consistent.

The facts are still the facts. Even if you simply recounted all the info from memory, the information would still have come from somewhere else. Find a way to use the basic info you find on the other site and improve it and make it different.

#7 mcanerin


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Posted 01 August 2003 - 11:29 AM

The traditional way of starting this message online would begin with the warning "I ANAL" (I Am Not A Lawyer). But in this case I am one - though take notice I don't practice publicly - I like this job much better!

Anyway, there was a famous case about a phonebook company that basically copied the local phone companys book verbatim, then charged for yellow page ads and resold it. Naturally the phone company sued.

The book company defended by saying that since a) the phone company in this case was government owned, and b) there was no creativity involved (it's just a list of numbers ie data ) there was no protection under copyright law.

The book company lost. The court held that the data itself was not protected, but the work involved in collecting and presenting the data in an understandable format was sufficient to provide protection. They also rejected the government issue on the same grounds that just because a park is public property doesn't mean you can build a house on it or sell it. It's not yours, it's the publics.

The upshot was that if the book company had actually gone door to door and collected the phone numbers they would have been ok, but by taking advantage of the organisation and collection the phone company did, it was not.

Hopefully that helps you in making a decision - I'd just ask them - I've honestly never asked the government (in my case the Canadian government) about reprinting info without a positive response. All they usually do is ask that you give credit, and don't sell it as if it was yours. Should be ok in a commercial site as long as you are not selling the info, just using it as a customer service in relation to your product.

#8 dragonlady7


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Posted 01 August 2003 - 11:46 AM

Wow, thanks a lot, mcanerin. I will definitely mention that.

Yes, Thanol, my boss needs therapy. He needs it badly. He's really intelligent and a good businessman but has developed some problems as the industry has gotten more competitive, and is prone to manic-depressive mood swings and embarrassing tantrums, and can be verbally abusive to employees.

So, yes, he needs therapy and probably medication. We can't convince him to get it. Working here is a miniature lottery every day. lately, he's been in a good mood. Two weeks ago, I swear he wanted to kill me, and he had our saleswoman in tears over something she wasn't even involved in.
I do what I can. I tread lightly where I can. And I slowly build my portfolio and my personal website so I can eventually work independently and not be at the mercy of the vicissitudes of a madman.

His idea is good. I think you're all right and I should ask first. I just have to figure out how to tell him that.

#9 Bill Slawski

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Posted 01 August 2003 - 01:12 PM

Some really good discussion of copyright here. There are sometimes exceptions to copyright. In this case, it is possible.

There are quite a few governments that claim copyright on the works that their employees produce during the normal course of their job responsibilities.

The United States does not follow that practice.

Title 17 of the United States Code, section 105:

105. Subject matter of copyright: United States Government works

Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.

Like most other laws, there are exceptions and limitations to this. That's where the law can get tricky, and where it either requires that you get a lawyer to make a determination, or contact an agency to get permission. The second option can often be the easiest.

Here's some language from a House Report when it was passed, that explains some (but not all) of the limitations:

For instance:

A more difficult and far-reaching problem is whether the definition should be broadened to prohibit copyright in works prepared under U.S. Government contract or grant. As the bill is written, the Government agency concerned could determine in each case whether to allow an independent contractor or grantee, to secure copyright in works prepared in whole or in part with the use of Government funds. The argument that has been made against allowing copyright in this situation is that the public should not be required to pay a ``double subsidy,'' and that it is inconsistent to prohibit copyright in works by Government employees while permitting private copyrights in a growing body of works created by persons who are paid with Government funds. Those arguing in favor of potential copyright protection have stressed the importance of copyright as an incentive to creation and dissemination in this situation, and the basically different policy considerations, applicable to works written by Government employees and those applicable to works prepared by private organizations with the use of Federal funds.

That page describes at least one other exception.

Then again, look at the FDAs page on copyright. It provides a bit more guidance. Everything is public domain except the few things that expressly state they aren't. See:

Linking To or Copying Information On the FDA Website

Asking permission probably doesn't hurt in anyway and is likely a good idea, but it is possible that a government produced glossary is in the public domain.

Note that the FDA recommends that if you copy material from their site, to link back to them so that people can check for updated material. It's a pretty good idea.

#10 qwerty


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Posted 01 August 2003 - 01:15 PM

Excellent information, Bill. I would add to this that in Dragonlady's particular case, even if it turns out that you don't need permission to use the government's information, you definitely need to get permission from the holder of the copyrighted material cited by the government.

#11 dragonlady7


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Posted 01 August 2003 - 02:12 PM

The original copyright holder concerns me as well. My boss insists he can just not use those particular definitions, but it worries me that his "rephrasing" might not be comprehensive enough. It's the meaning that's important, not the words-- perhaps the copyright holder was the first to assign that meaning to that term. So I think it's far more complex than my boss dismisses it as.
Fortunately he's distracted for the moment by all the other work he's having me do today. I will worry about it after the site is launched, when we go back to add it. In the meantime, I'll do a little more research. Thank you [b]very[/i] much to everyone who has commented! This is a great starting place for me. I'm very impressed with the responses here.

#12 darciusrex


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Posted 05 August 2003 - 07:25 PM

If the glossary is online, would there be any harm in linking to it? I don't think there would be any copyright issues and you could still give visitors access to the information. But I could be missing the point . . . :cheers:

ps- the drunk smilie rocks!

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