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If a user comments on a website, and a third-party business owner uses text from that comment for commercial purposes, is that plagiarism or theft?

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It is not theft, since theft involves depriving the property owner of his thing, and the comment is still there where it originally was. However, stuff that a person writes can be protected by copyright law. You would have to look into the details of how the author used the website. The author may own the website and has simply posted comments for the world to see: any copying requires his permission. He may have posted text on someone else's website, and maybe the terms of use of that other website state that you agree to transfer your copyright to the website owner in consideration for permission to post a comment. That's basically what happens at SE, and most other public forums. In that case, it is, again, between the website owner (probably not the author) and the third party user (Mr. Businessman). The TOS may say "Anybody can copy anything here for any reason", or "Nobody can copy anything", or there may be some "non-commercial" condition attached to permission to copy. There is no general answer, except "Whatever the TOS says".

Plagiarism is not a legal concept. However, commercial / non-commercial is completely orthogonal to plagiarism, as is permission. Instead, plagiarism is all about (a) correct punctuation (things in quotes) and (b) proper attribution. If Smith copies a slogan from a website and uses it, passing it off as his own, then that is plagiarism. If he says that this slogan comes from someone else, it isn't. Plagiarism is about social sanctions, not law.

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  • So if, let's say, YouTube's TOS says "All content is owned by us", and a business owner, let's say, uses a YouTube comment on his website, YouTube would have grounds to sue his business?
    – Joe Morano
    Jan 27, 2017 at 1:55
  • Yes, they would. But the person who made the comment would not - they already agreed that YouTube owns the comment.
    – user4657
    Jan 27, 2017 at 2:36
  • Yes, although in fact their TOS doesn't say that, but if it did and they didn't grant permission to copy, then Mr. Business can be sued for infringement.
    – user6726
    Jan 27, 2017 at 2:36
  • Most website terms grant the owner a licence: they generally do not transfer copyright
    – Dale M
    Jan 27, 2017 at 22:22
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    @JoeMorano Wait. Do you mean a third-party who comes to YouTube and pulls the user's content? In that case, the third-party wouldn't have rights to that content. IIRC, only YouTube has the right to use your content, and this is not shared with anyone else. Since YouTube doesn't own the content, they have no authority to file suit - only the owner, in this case the user, would be the only person able to sue.
    – Zizouz212
    Mar 31, 2017 at 2:59

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