I am dealing with a language that has only one published physical dictionary so far. I need a list of all words from that language. The dictionary has a traditional copyright text:

All rights reserved. No parts of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form, without permission in writing from the author.

It has not been possible to get in touch with the author. Is it fine to copy only the words from the dictionary without their definitions for educational and non-commercial purposes?

  • 4
    What is the relevant jurisdiction? You've gotten one answer covering the situation in Germany, but I think you might get the opposite answer in the US. There is little harmonization with regards to copyright exceptions internationally.
    – amon
    Commented Apr 10, 2022 at 17:22

2 Answers 2


Under US law, words of a language are facts, which are not protected by copyright. Only creative expressions are protected. There are various aspects of a dictionary which are capable of protection, such as the pairing of a word and a translation, the organization of an entry (headword, POS information, the structure of sets of entries according to a grammatical analysis as in an Arabic dictionary). The order of presentation of the words could be protected (relevant for languages with complex morphology where words are grouped according to roots, rather than strict alphabetization). Finally, the criteria of selection for inclusion might involve a smidgen of creativity, but there is no creativity involved in publishing "all of the words that I collected".

  • What about spellings of words that have been chosen by the author: the oral word is a fact they collected, but their choice of spelling in some cases might not be based on collecting but instead on a design process. Would that change anything? I imagine this would be common in first/only dictionaries of languages.
    – Dan Getz
    Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 11:20
  • That is a possible limit: it depends on the extent to which spelling is not an algorithmic translation of pronunciation to letters. As you can imagine, this isn't an question with direct case law. The method could be patented, but that doesn't confer copyright on the results of applying the method to facts.
    – user6726
    Commented Apr 11, 2022 at 15:18

Under German law, the collection of words in the dictionary, even without the definitions, would probably be protected as a database (§4,I UrhG).

There are limits to author's rights, including limits for educational use. But your use does not fall under that exemption: §60a UrhG says that you can use up to 15% of a work for distributing to a limited audience (e.g. one class, one course, or one institution).

Also, while the use is permitted by law, the rights holder is still entitled to reasonable and fair remuneration (§60h UrhG) – in other words, even if your usage is covered by law and does not require permission by the rights holder, you still need to pay them.

  • the 15% is for distribution but does not account for research where you can use the whole work as a reference database, e.g. you can use the full text of a play and compare it to the dictionary, resulting in a sorted list of words and their occurrences and position in the dictionary, and words that are not in that dictionary. That would create a new database from 2 others.
    – Trish
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 14:20

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