I just saw the following at the English language and usage stack exchange meta forum (ELU meta).

As one of the answers there suggests, it may make sense theoretically, but I'm wondering if it really does even theoretically.

My naive understanding is that as long as you are clear about its sources, and the quoted amount is decent, there can't be an issue (the amount may be problematic in general, but in case of ELU, usually less than dozen definitions per answer).

Now my questions are

  • Specifically about copy-pasting dictionary definitions on ELU answers, can it be a legal issue even theoretically?

  • Does the collective nature of web forum make difference? For example, if it can be an issue on stack exchange (SE), does that mean copy-pasting a word definition on my blog post would also be a problem?

  • In general is it possible to legally forbid any amount of copy-paste from a website, assuming the texts are clearly presented as citation?

Regionally I restrict the question to the US, if it matters.

6 Answers 6


Copyright Analysis

My naive understanding is that as long as you are clear about its sources, and the quoted amount is decent, there can't be an issue

This isn't correct. Clarity about sources, attribution, and citation are irrelevant to copyright liability. Any unauthorized copying is copyright infringement, and then the issue is whether the dictionary, having established copyright infringement, can overcome your fair use defense or some other defense.

Specifically about copy-pasting dictionary definitions on ELU answers, can it be a legal issue even theoretically?

Yes. It is facially a clear case of copyright infringement (assuming that the dictionary that you are copying from is still protected by a copyright; some older dictionaries are not, and assuming that it is not an open source dictionary such as Wiktionary). The only real question is whether a fair use defense applies.

Does the collective nature of web forum make difference? For example, if it can be an issue on SE, does that mean copy-pasting a word definition on my blog post would also be a problem?

The collective nature of the web forum isn't the relevant point. The relevant point in the context of something like the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange, is the Stack Exchange is a non-profit with an educational purpose. The likelihood that a fair use defense will prevail in the case of a non-profit with an educational purpose is higher than in the case of a for profit with a marketing purpose, for example.

The other fact that argues in favor is fair use is that a single dictionary definition is typically a tiny portion of the overall dictionary and usually, even in an English Language and Usage Stack Exchange answer, you would only copy one or two of the relevant senses and parts of speech definitions of the word, not even the entire dictionary definition for the word.

A blog post would have to be evaluated based upon the nature and purpose of the blog as a whole.

In general, fair use is evaluated only once a copyright infringement lawsuit has been commenced, and then, only on a case-by-case basis. In close cases the decision is made by the jury and two juries faced with identical facts could come to opposite conclusions that would both be upheld as correct on appeal.

There is arguably also an "implied license" defense. Why make definitions freely available online if you don't expect people to make minimal references to particular parts of single definitions? Copyrighted works can be used for the purposes that the copyright owner making them available intends the work to be used. The TOS of the website could clarify that point, either expressly allowing limited use, or expressly disavowing any implied license to use definitions in this way.

Section 230 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act insulates Stack Exchange itself from liability so long as it complies with any takedown notices that it receives, so only the user of ELU who made the post would be exposed to liability.

The easier route of least resistance for the dictionary alleging copyright infringement would be to send Stack Exchange a takedown notice, without pursuing the matter further in a lawsuit. If Stack Exchange complied (which it probably would), that would probably be the end of it.

Contract Law Analysis

In general is it possible to legally forbid any amount of copy-paste from a website, assuming the texts are clearly presented as citation?

In some circumstances, a contract (such as a terms of service agreement) might legally forbid this activity, but, a contract such as a terms of service agreement, can only give the prevailing party a right to compensatory damages for the economic harm caused by the breach of the contract. In the case of someone copying a single partial dictionary definition in violation of a TOS, the damages might be a nominal award of less than a dollar. For this reason, and for non-legal economic and publicity reasons, dictionaries that make definitions available online without charge have not pursued this litigation strategy.

Combined Analysis

For these reasons, primarily it is a question of copyright law, in which the fair use defense has immense uncertainty as applied on a case by case basis. Copyright infringement, when it overcomes the fair use defense, can, in theory, allow an award of statutory damages for copyright infringement which are far in excess of purely economic damages. And, this is the only way that suing for copying and pasting copyrighted material makes economic sense.

Also, given the minimal damages, even in the case of a copyright violation where statutory damages are available, the cost of locating the true name and location of the allegedly infringing party is usually cost prohibitive.

  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Dale M
    Commented Apr 29 at 3:28
  • "Any unauthorized copying is copyright infringement" This is simply not true. The thing copied must be a substantial (that is, not insubstantial) and protectable (that is, not a name, short phrase, or the like) portion of the work. For example, you can copy an entire name, title, or slogan and it is not copyright infringement. There is a genuine question of whether a single definition is substantial enough that copying it would be infringement. And if it's not substantial enough to be infringement, then you don't need a fair use defense. Commented Apr 29 at 21:31
  • @DavidSchwartz I am making some assumptions. But a single definition is almost surely enough to be infringement on a substantiality ground.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 29 at 21:49
  • @ohwilleke I can't find a single case that held that. And the "slogan" and "short phrase" entries on the list of things deemed not substantial seem roughly comparable with a single sentence definition. I believe there was an Australian case that specifically held that a single definition was insufficient to constitute infringement, but I think they're a bit of an outlier in how much copying they require. Commented Apr 29 at 22:24
  • What about the issue with copyrighting facts? Even false facts, like a fake city name in a map, do not create copyright protections. Are the definitions of words eligible for copyright?
    – trlkly
    Commented Apr 30 at 4:21

In my lay opinion, excerpting a couple of definitions in a Stack Exchange post meets 3 of the 4 criteria for Fair Use.

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.

Maybe. The purpose of Stack Exchange is educational, and there's no profit for the individual posters. SE itself is a for-profit corporation, but posters are not employees or agents of SE. SE is just providing the platform, not making the copies. I think Section 230 indemnifies the platform provider from any copyright infringement liability; if there is any, it belongs to the posters.

  1. The nature of the copyrighted work.

They got us there, it's a commercial dictionary, and a great amount of creative and research work went into creating it.

  1. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.

Check. One or two definitions out of thousands is insignificant. It's like quoting one line of a novel.

  1. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Check. Even if hundreds of posters each quote a few definitions (I've quoted a few hundred, but not all from the same dictionary), it doesn't make much of a dent in the value of the original dictionaries. And our definitions are scattered over thousands of questions and answers, with no easy way to search for specific words, which is one of the main values of real dictionaries.

In addition, citing the original dictionary and linking back to the definitions, as is recommended, is essentially free advertising for them.

While there's some food for thought here, I personally feel no qualms over quoting dictionary definitions in my answers at ELU.se. I also feel the same way when I excerpt from software documentation at Stack Overflow.

  • 3
    @sundowner Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976 (17 U.S.C. § 107) establishes the four factor fair use test.
    – cde
    Commented Apr 27 at 17:18
  • 3
    Stack Exchange is a for profit company dedicated to selling software and services. It's not educational and even the ad revenue would make it qualify as commercial for the test. It doesn't fail as fair use but it's less likely than a real nonprofit educational use
    – cde
    Commented Apr 27 at 17:19
  • 1
    Layperson or not, this is a much better answer than the accepted answer. Those are indeed the statutory factors and 3/4 are indeed slam dunks for the defendant. However even (2) isn't a slam dunk for the copyright owner. Dictionaries are a special beast; some definitions are creative while some are not creative at all. The "merger doctrine" could easily come into play. I would also add that attribution (or lack thereof) plainly matters for the first factor. A quote with attribution demonstrates the the use is commentary/informational/academic while lack of attribution could suggest bad faith.
    – Peter
    Commented Apr 27 at 19:04
  • 1
    @cde As another example regarding profit-making, many colleges are for-profit, and professors are not volunteers, but that doesn't preclude their making copies of small excerpts from being fair use.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 28 at 12:59
  • 1
    @barmar for profit education has less fair use protection than non profit. See docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/…
    – cde
    Commented Apr 28 at 18:10

I found this question in my Google feed, meaning it's being promoted by the algorithm, meaning a lot of people are going to see it. While none of the other answers are outright wrong per se, I fear people who find this thread, especially all the comments, may take away an overall impression that they should be afraid to quote dictionary definitions in their writings. They should not be. I thus want to offer some thoughs and cite a few relevant sources that people can read and form their own opinions rather than just take these answers (including mine) on faith.

Before that though let me talk about ELU briefly. I'm not going to say too much here because I could easily delve into the legal advice territory if I'm not careful. Suffice it to say I think the site owners, in general, should probably consult an attorney (though they likely have already) if the copying and pasting of dictionary definitions by their users becomes widespread enough to attract the scrutiny of the publishers. There are potential arguments on both sides and I'm not sure the DMCA safe harbor is a silver bullet here, due to the unique nature of that site and its subject matter, and the amount of content moderation SE engages in.

That out of the way, I want to address the question's broader implications about quoting/citing dictionaries in one's own writing - which are completely different from that of the ELU site as a whole.

To put it succinctly, good faith quoting of an occasional dictionary definition - or any nonfiction source, frankly - with proper attribution, as part of an informational or persuasive piece (commercial or otherwise), fits the definition of fair use. Full stop.

How can I be so confident about this if fair use is ordinarily such a thorny and difficult topic?

1. The statute

Barmar already cited the statute (17 USC 107) and went through the 4 non-exhaustive factors so I don't want to repeat what he said, but I want to add the preamble to the mix:

[T]he fair use of a copyrighted work ... for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching ..., scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

The 4 factors are then explicitly listed as non-exclusive (they "shall include"). The ultimate question of law hinges on the purpose of the use, and everything else in the statute falls into the "such as" category (i.e., it's illustrative rather than exhaustive).

Why, then, would one quote a dictionary definition in their writing? Are they trying to make and sell their own mini dictionary? Not likely (and not fair use). Are they criticizing or commenting on a new dictionary definition of a novel word? Not super common but it comes up occasionally, and when it does it is fair use by the plain language of the statute.

However, the vast majority of the time, someone quotes a dictionary definition simply as a data point, in order to explain something (often something technical), to interpret some document or someone's words, to make an argument (often a legal argument!), or otherwise just inform a reader about something broader. It's usually simply offered as proof of a brute fact, i.e., a word's objectively accepted meaning, which cannot be expressed in any other way except through direct quotation. All of these purpose seem to pretty clearly fit those listed in the preamble.

What about attribution? The answers/comments claiming attribution is irrelevant here are oversimplifying things. True, once infringement is established, attribution is no defense, but that's not the question. The question is whether attribution is relevant to fair use (because if it's fair use, there's no infringement), and in my view it clearly is. It's evidence of your purpose. If you are trying to pass off someone else's work as your own, that could be evidence that your purpose is not fair. On the other hand if you properly quote and attribute the source, following ethical/scholarly/journalistic standards, that helps demonstrate a scholarly/informative purpose.

What about commercial vs. noncommercial? Well, it's right there in factor (1) of the statute, so to say it doesn't matter very much, without more context, is rather misleading and wrong on its face. Is it dispositive? Certainly not, but no one factor is. Fair use is found all the time in commercial cases, and not found all the time in noncommercial ones.

But does it matter to this particular hypothetical? I'd agree that it does not matter all that much, but only because the purpose argument is so strong that even purely commercial for-profit works should be covered. There are fringe cases I can imagine it mattering, but for run of the mill quotations in a nonfiction literary piece, I'd say not so much.

To briefly address the other statutory factors, I cover them in my hypothetical by simply assuming the writer is acting in good faith. I don't mean that subjective intent is a defense - it's not - but what I mean is a good faith actor here is simply not going to be pulling an unreasonable number of definitions from a dictionary, word for word, or trying to disguise their infringement behind some nominal piece of commentary, or doing the other things that would run them afoul of the other s.107 factors. But I'll get to this point a little more in (3).

2. Case law and procedure

Full disclosure, I looked for but could not find precedent about quoting dictionary definitions in informative non-fiction works. (I don't have access to Westlaw or Lexis, so if someone is aware of any relevant court decisions by all means please post the citations).

That said, I did find a useful summary article published by a law firm - Does Your Rule 12 Motion Based On Fair Use Have A Chance. (Incidentally, these kinds of articles are a common form of "soft" legal scholarship often done to draw attention to a firm's expertise. They can sometimes be very useful as a source to find actual case law when you don't have access to the pro research tools). I focused on the procedural question here because while I think it's rather obvious that the substantive question favors the quoter in our hypothetical, it doesn't mean all that much if blog authors and students have to live in fear of lawsuits that can't be resolved without discovery and massive expense.

While it's not common, it turns out that fair use defenses can be and are resolved through a motion to dismiss when the defense is obvious from the face of the complaint. As the article explains:

A review of recent court opinions shows that courts have granted Rule 12 motions where no discovery is needed to determine that the defendant’s use of the plaintiff’s copyrighted material squarely falls within the uses set forth in the preamble of the Copyright Act, namely, “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching ... scholarship, or research.”

So, the suggestion, which has been made in this thread in more than one place, that a fair use defense always means a bruising protracted uphill battle for the defendant, is just not true. There are fair uses that are so open and shut that they will be outright dismissed by courts as a matter of law, if any plaintiff is foolish enough to bring them.

But again, to be fair, I don't know of precedents specific to dictionary quoting in the context of an informative or persuasive piece. There are ample precedents that dictionaries are copyrightable (at least to the extent they contain definitions not carried over from earlier editions that are now public domain) - see, e.g., Richards v. Merriam-Webster - and that wholesale copying of large portions of a dictionary is not fair use, but of course that's not the issue here.

3. Commonality of the Practice, and Common Sense

On my first day of law school, my contracts professor told us the most important legal principle you need to know is "The law is not an ass." 24 years later I have yet to see that principle fail.

Of course there are unjust outcomes and bad decisions all the time, but that's not what we're talking about here. A court decision holding a nonfiction author liable for quoting another nonfiction source in a responsible and ethical manner in conformance with commonly accepted practices would end nonfiction writing as we know it. Courts in the United States are not in the business of allowing outcomes that would defy all semblance of common sense or terrify the general public.

Quotation and citation are the backbone of nonfiction writing. This is drilled into us as students. We want pepole doing this, now more than ever when any idiot with a broadband connection can post whatever they want in black and white and disseminate it as widely as The New York Times (sometimes more widely). It makes for a more informed society. It's how we distinguish people who are just talking out of their butts from people providing legitimately useful information. It promotes the progress of science and useful arts.

Nonfiction authors, bloggers, students, journalists, etc., doing their work in good faith, are not going to get sued for quoting dictionary definiitons in their writings. If one does, an army of pro bono lawyers will descend upon the courthouse and put the travesty to rest quickly. Act reasonably, act responsibly, follow ethical practices. If your gut tells you you're near the line, consult an attorney. But please, do not be afraid to quote sources in your writing, especially on the Internet, where accuracy and responsible writing is needed the most.


Depends on your definition of copyright issues.

If by copyright issues you mean can lead to legal complaints, or a lawsuit, regardless if you win or lose, then yes. Taking copyrighted expressions, even if fair use, or even if maybe not actually copyrightable (because it's a fact or copyright expired, etc), can lead to a copyright holder issuing claimed against you and the site you post on. You can be sued for anything in the US, including copyright violations

If you mean would you ultimately lose if it goes to court, then probably no. When you take fair use, the copyrightability of facts, copyright expiration, the practicality of suing over a blurb, optics of suing over a definition, cost of suing vs expected recovery, a judge throwing it out, etc, it's just unlikely that something substantial happening.

Copyright aside, the TOS violation on either side is a contractual dispute, and also unlikely to have any real impact in court. But it's also a (very minor) possibility of issues. They can take action on the contract violation.

The "collective nature" of stack exchange likely doesn't matter as the amount of editing and changing of the published work makes stack exchange a publisher instead of just a distributor of the content. You posting on your own blog would definitely be considered a publisher. Both stack exchange and you would be liable for the copyright violation, but your contract with stack exchange means they can (likely successfully) sue you to recoup their loses. You agreed to idemdefiy them for your wilful actions after all.

And to your last point, yes. Contractual restrictions can be used to prevent any copy-pasting. Legally, terms of service and acceptable use policies are legally binding, often enforceable in court, and can be used to punish copy-pasting even of non-copyrightable work. It's just... Not worth pursuing most of the time.


You seem to confuse copyright infringement and plagiarism. If you copy without permission it’s copyright infringement. If the terms of service says “no copying” then the difference is that you have no excuse for it at all. Attributing the source is nice but doesn’t make it not copyright infringement.

And the website told you they don’t want your post with copied information.

You might get away with a “fair use” defense if things went to court, but they can send a DMCA notice, and your post will be taken down. You can have it reinstated, but that is telling the copyright holder that they want you to sue them. Plus the site where you posted had no obligations to restore your post. They will see it as your posts being more trouble than they are worth.

  • 1
    I don't think that plagiarism is the concern being expressed. The ELU meta discussion referenced seems to concern potential copyright/TOS violation liability. The issue about citation is an implicit reference to TOS terms quoted there, requiring citation in the circumstances where very limited license for personal use is allowed.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 26 at 19:41
  • 1
    DMCA requires they take fair use into consideration
    – cde
    Commented Apr 27 at 17:24

Even under a Fair Use exemption you may only include information that you have the right to publish under a Creative Commons By-ShareAlike license. To make use of fair use content as part of your CC BY-SA material you need to explicitedly exclude it from your CC BY-SA content, but this is not allowed by the StackExchange terms of service and incompatible with the current licensing. See this post: https://meta.stackexchange.com/q/327528/184432 Until StackExchange adds the exemption you may not include external content no matter how well attributed it is, and regardless of any related legal concepts like Fair Use, as you don't have the legal right to publish someone's else's content under a permissive license like Creative Commons.


Specifically about copy-pasting dictionary definitions on ELU answers, can it be a legal issue even theoretically?

Yes, you are not allowed to do this.

Does the collective nature of web forum make difference? For example, if it can be an issue on stack exchange (SE), does that mean copy-pasting a word definition on my blog post would also be a problem?

Depends on your licensing and whether your usage falls under Fair Use

In general is it possible to legally forbid any amount of copy-paste from a website, assuming the texts are clearly presented as citation?

It's by default forbidden, unless it's either old, not copyrightable or there is a law or contract giving you permission.

  • 2
    Just to be clear you're just saying it'd be a violation of SE terms/rules to do this, right? Because by posting you're representing that you have authority to license your content to SE under a CC license when in fact you don't?
    – Peter
    Commented Apr 29 at 11:53
  • @Peter To both SE and to the public as far as I understand it. Basically what one would be doing is taking something that is copyrighted and giving people a license to use it as long as they follow my rules (rules being in this case 'attribution' (to me) and restrictions on how the derivative work is licensed). Someone could then in good faith use the quote under the license that I provided them in a context that would not fall under a fair use exemption. This would mean that they would be committing copyright infringement for sure, but as far as I know they could come knock on my door. Commented Apr 29 at 12:33
  • (cont.) At the end of the day I am redistributing something to the public under a license that's incompatible with my very very restricted rights to use it (fair use). Commented Apr 29 at 12:34
  • Yep got it and mostly agreed. It would definitely be nice if SE offered a standardized way to make - and encouraged - attributions consistent with CC guidelines. Not so sure about anyone knocking on your door - remember a license (in the US at least) is merely a promise not to sue; it doesn't actually give the recipient the right to use the work. If you warranted that you have full rights to the entire material (not sure you do by posting on SE) that'd be very different. But regardless of the technicalities, the practical points are all well taken and just make good sense.
    – Peter
    Commented Apr 29 at 13:03
  • I'd just add that you don't need a built-in mechanism to attribute a source. You can always include this in the text of your post and a reasonable reader should then know you don't own rights to the underlying material. Technically you can still license your overall post under CC, even if the post includes elements that are P.D., licensed, or fair use. Again that's the difference between a license just a promise not to sue, vs. a warranty that you possess rights to every constituent component of the work. The copyright to your overall post is distinct from that of the quoted material.
    – Peter
    Commented Apr 29 at 13:08

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