Good afternoon,

I am working on a language app to learn languages, and I was thinking to include sentences and dialogues for the users to practice their languages.
 My question is: can I re-use, and to what extend, similar exercises used in other textbooks? Does that fall under the fair use for educational purpose?

And more in particular, I am wondering about the following 3 cases:

  1. Are vocabulary lists for specific lessons copyrighted? I know a single word (e.g. in Latin) + translation in English is not copyrighted, but what about whole series of words as vocabulary list? E.g.: can I add to the "lesson 1" of my app the vocabulary list at the end of chapter one of a hypothetical book "learn Latin in 20 lessons"?

  2. What about dialogues, especially very basic ones, like "What is your name? My name is Paul. Where are you from? I am from Canada"? are they copyrighted? or it depends, and how can I determine the threshold?

  3. The app will focus mainly on ancient, dead languages, like Latin. I guess that sentences taken from ancient texts can be used freely as exercises. But what about basic sentences created by the author of a teaching book to illustrate specific examples? Or sentences from the initial exercises, which often are made up to illustrate specific grammatical concepts? Are those sentences copyrighted, or again could I use the sentences of the exercise at the end of chapter one of the same hypothetical book "learn Latin in 20 lessons" ?

  • 1
    Why are you copying from these book rather than deciding what to put in the tables yourself? Apr 30, 2021 at 13:07
  • Note that you are only asking about copyrights, but #1 may also be protected by database rights. Also note that while ancient texts are now in the public domain, selecting a particularly instructive section is still a creative process, and thus may be protected, similar to how e.g. "found object" art is protected because the artist chose this particular object out of the giant pile of trash, or how photographs are protected because the photographer chose the framing, focal length, aperture, shutter speed, perspective, location, point in time, etc. May 1, 2021 at 6:51
  • Please note: "Law Stack Exchange is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized advice from a qualified legal practitioner." You seem to be working on an app already. If you want to be sure whether what you're doing is legal, ask someone qualified.
    – Mast
    May 1, 2021 at 14:17
  • @JörgWMittag There's no jurisdiction tag here, but the US Copyright Office is clear that found objects are not subject to copyright in the US, e.g. "A claim [for copyright] based on driftwood that has been shaped and smoothed by the ocean." CO Compendium 313.2
    – prosfilaes
    Sep 29, 2022 at 15:33

2 Answers 2


The relevant question is whether the material has a smidgen of intellectual creativity. That is the case with language-teaching dialogues, because they require careful selection to be successful. The typical conventional exchange "Subax wanaagsan. Ma nabad baa?" may be unprotected as an automatic greeting, but after that, significant creativity goes into constructing language dialogues. The component words are (generally) unprotected but the sentences formed from them are. However, the degree of similarity between two works has to reach a certain threshold for there to be a finding of infringement. Because of the nature of the genre, certain kinds of sentences are highly likely to occur in any language lesson ("I ate breakfast"), so infringement would not be found because of the occurrence of such sentences. This is a technical matter where the language experts would testify. Harvesting example sentences from the literature of a dead language is one way to minimize legal risk, as long as you do not recreate authors creative assemblage of sentences harvested from the literature.

The individual words of a word list are not protected, their organization into a series of chapter-vocabularies is. The very act of selecting a word for inclusion in a word list is a creative act and is protected. Dictionaries are protected by copyright. However, especially for dead languages there are many dictionaries in the public domain. But supposing that you wanted to include the 1,000 most useful words in language X and copied that list from a protected work, that would be infringement. Again, the legal question is whether the degree of similarity between two works is substantial (or "striking", "probative" depending on where you are), which again becomes a technical question for the experts to testify to.

  • "But supposing that you wanted to include the 1,000 most useful words in language X and copied that list from a protected work" Depends on how the list was compiled, right? IIRC facts can't be copyrighted (or is it that they can't be patented)? If it's an objective fact like the list of 1,000 most used words, then I don't think that in itself could be copyrighted, just the specifics of its presentation.
    – nick012000
    May 1, 2021 at 10:45
  • @nick012000, can you objectively list the most used words? Such lists may depend on the selection of the source material from which you count those words, and that might not be so straightforward.
    – ilkkachu
    May 1, 2021 at 10:52
  • @ikkachu "can you objectively list the most used words?" Sure. This Wikipedia article describes two different attempts at doing so for English. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Most_common_words_in_English
    – nick012000
    May 1, 2021 at 10:56
  • 1
    @nick012000: The fact that it describes two different attempts seems to imply to me that there is a creative element involved in choosing the approach and/or the corpus. I think it would be protected as a database, at least in some of the countries that recognize such a right. May 1, 2021 at 19:05

Details depend on the juristiction. For that, consult a lawyer if you plan to publish your app anywhere.

But generally, even simple texts from exercises can be covered by copyright. Compare song lyrics, which are not much longer (and might not involve more creative thought than a good exercise ...).

For vocabulary lists, it gets more tricky, but those can be covered as well if the assembly of the list was a creative effort. So if you simply list the 1,000 most common worlds in English and their translation, you are possibly fine, but if the words are divided into units and lessons, that's creative work.

  • Determining the 1000 most common words is surprisingly subjective. Which texts, speeches, talks, and so on do you use to decide, and how do you weight them? Truly representative sampling without exhaustively going over all instances is generally not quite possible. May 13, 2022 at 16:28

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