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I quoted extensively from Quirk et al. in one of my recent answers, and a thought came to me: what is the maximum amount beyond which a quotation might infringe upon the copyright?

I don't want for my answers to be lost because someday some copyright holder would deem them infringing.

And what if, say, Quirk et al.'s book will be quoted in minute excerpts across thousands of answers, but in aggregate these will constitute a sizable share of the book? Would that be an infringement?

P.S. Per Colleen's advice, I also asked the question on Law SE.

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    This might be an interesting question for the Law SE law.stackexchange.com
    – ColleenV
    Feb 9 '16 at 16:47
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    Your question urges me to search for some information. I found this article, Fair use of copyrighted materials, which is probably worth sharing. Feb 9 '16 at 17:01
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    I think it might be worth migrating over there since it is primarily a legal question about fair-use within the SE system and less a question about ELL and our community. I'd be surprised if other stack exchange sites didn't have the same concerns, and the experts in that community have both a legal background and familiarity with SE, so the advice might be better tailored than an Internet search.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 9 '16 at 18:13
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    I think it might be a good idea to keep at least a link to the question here too; it's bound to come up again given that good answers cite credible sources. I popped over there and up-voted it :)
    – ColleenV
    Feb 9 '16 at 18:43
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    I am not sure how much it would be helpful, but related question on English Language and Usage, Does copy and paste infringe copyrights?.
    – user24743
    Feb 10 '16 at 4:40
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    Educational material can be copied and pasted as is. However, you need to mention the source which we are doing pretty well. So, no worries, keep sharing good stuff! :)
    – Maulik V
    Feb 10 '16 at 6:17
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The wording of your question implies that you are aware of the concept of "fair use". It is legal to use brief quotes from someone else's work without permission.

A very common question on fair use is, "how much can I copy", a question which the law and the courts answer, "It all depends, and each instance must be decided on a case by case basis". From a legal, peace of mind point of view, it would be nice if they said, "You can freely copy 500 words, but 501 words is too many", or whatever number. But they don't.

Copyright law explicitly says that fair use is broader when material is copied for educational purposes than for commercial purposes, and I think a site like this would qualify.

The point of copyright law is to protect the FINANCIAL interests of the original author, not their reputation or legacy as the smart person who wrote this thing. That is, the key question is, Would someone buy your book that copies large portions of that other person's book, rather than buying the other person's book? If someone is posting their work on the Internet where anyone can read it for free, they are not losing anything by your copying, so fair use should logically be much broader.

So in this case, I doubt it's much of an issue, especially if you only copy a minimum relevant amount. If someone asks, say, about the proper use of a semi-colon and you copy a couple of sentences that describes proper use of a semi-colon, I think you're good. If you copy the entire chapter on punctuation, there could be a problem.

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    Is there a case that delves into the financial interests aspect? It seems like providing substantial parts of a book for "free" could be even more damaging than selling a book. If over the years, we extract every good explanation from a reference to supplement our answers, that might impact sales of the book (or it might help sales by increasing exposure, who knows? :) )
    – ColleenV
    Feb 12 '16 at 17:39
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    It would make a better answer if you could emphasize we have to name the source of the information in a post when we answer a question. As far as I understand, it could make a world of difference.
    – user24743
    Feb 12 '16 at 17:44
  • @ColleenV Absolutely. The question is not whether the person doing the copying made money, but whether he is depriving the person that he "borrowed" from. (It's like the difference between stealing and vandalism: I gain nothing by vandlizing your property, but you still lose.) That said, copyright law says that copying for purposes of "education or criticism" is given broader latitude. Arguably there's a loophole in copyright law: If one person copies one paragraph from your book, that's unlikely to hurt your sales. It may even help if people see the quote and decide to buy the book. ...
    – Jay
    Feb 12 '16 at 19:25
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    ... But if 1000 people each copy one paragraph, combined they may have copied all or most of the book. Each one has a fair use defense, but in aggregate the author has still seen his entire book given away. I doubt he would have any recourse because each copier is acting legally. Unless he could show that there was collusion or some such.
    – Jay
    Feb 12 '16 at 19:26
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    @Rathony You're confusing copyright violation with plagiarism. To avoid the academic violation of plagiarism you have to cite a source. But citing a source is not a defense against a charge of copyright violation. If I copied the entire contents of "Harry Potter" word for word and published it as my own book, adding a footnote citing this as pages 1 through 300 (or whatever), J. K. Rowling, "Harry Potter" would do nothing to protect me from being sued.
    – Jay
    Feb 12 '16 at 19:29
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    It might be interesting to see if the aggregator is responsible, similar to the way RIAA tried to hold the peer-to-peer services accountable. I don't think we're in any danger, but I'd love to see the case argued just for curiosity's sake. Maybe I'll try to see if the data explorer can figure out our most quoted reference.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 12 '16 at 19:30

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