I'm working on an app to practice vocabulary. I have a few books at home that teach the language and naturally contain a list of vocabulary at the end of the book. For convenience, I'd like to copy those lists into the app, so that users that are working with the respective book can just import that list and do not need to copy it themselves.

This related post explains that words of a language itself are not copyrightable, but a list for a purpose is. That answer is lacking a region tag though.

This post has the somewhat same question, but is about copying definitions from a dictionary (and again no region tag). I'm not talking about definitions, I'm simply taking about a list like

voiture: car
Apfelbaum, der: apple tree
punainen: red

Most books orientate themselves to the levels of the CEFR. A1 would be an absolute beginner and C2 would be equivalent to a native speaker.

For example, the above link desribes A1 as

Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

As such it is no wonder, that most books for specific levels have a large amount of overlapping vocabulary.

My questions are:

  • is it legal to publish a copied list from a book

    • if not, to what degree must it be different (aka, maybe I can not name the list "Chapter 1 of Language book 1", but it can match 95% of the vocabulary)
  • can a user upload such a list for personal use to the server?

  • can I make a user's uploaded list available for other users?

In my mind these questions are highly related, but please tell me if I should ask them in separate threads.

  • If it matters to an answer your examples do include definitions even though they are one word definitions. It is not a list of words in a language. Aug 17, 2022 at 23:00
  • @George White: I'd argue that translating numbers isn't copyrightable, because there simply is no other way. Aug 18, 2022 at 5:20
  • 1
    @infinitezero Given the whole list, which include lots of words, it's possible that sufficient creative choices would have had to be made, to consider the whole list creative. Even numbers can be translated different ways in some languages, depending on context. "One" in German could be translated as "man" or as "ein", "eine", etc. depending on which context we're talking about. The facts that those are translations are facts, but the manner in which such translations are presented could be considered creative choices.
    – Brandin
    Aug 18, 2022 at 11:37

3 Answers 3


Facts are never protected by copyright, but the way a fact is expressed may be. Individual words are facts. Definitions of words are facts, but the way in which the definition ism expressed, the phrases used, may well be protected by copyright. All the above is, to the best o my understanding, true in all countries.

Under US copyright law, and the case Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991) a list of facts is protected by copyright only if there was some significant originality in the selection (choice) of facts for thje list, or in their arrangement or ordering. Use of an "obvious" r "natural" order, such as alphabetical or chronological order, does not contribute any originality. The Feist rule is followed in the US, and after the Interlego case in the UK. I believe it is now followed in the EU as well, but I am not sure of that. Some jurisdictions follow, or used to follow, the n"sweat of the brow" rule, in which the "skill and labor" of the creator of the list results in protection. Feist denounced that rule as never having been correct under US copyright law, because of the statutory requirement of originality.

If a list is protected by copyright, uploading it to a server would constitute making a copy and would be infringement if done without permission, unless an exception to copyright applies, such as fair use in the US or fair dealing in the UK and some other countries. In general each country has its own list of exceptions, some having many narrow exceptions, some fewer and broader.

Allowing users to upload their own lists would not be copyright infringement, but might be held to be contributory infringement if individuals are encouraged to do acts which constitute infringement, and particularly if the defendant gains commercial advantage from such acts, as in the early file-sharing and music-sharing cases, like Napster.

  • The question is tagged european-union.
    – o.m.
    Aug 16, 2022 at 19:54
  • 1
    @o.m. I am well aware of that, but policy on this site is that an answer can always be given about another jurisdiction. However, my answer is at least partly about the EU: "All the above is, to the best o my understanding, true in all countries." and "The Feist rule is followed in the US, and after the Interlego case in the UK. I believe it is now followed in the EU as well, ...," Aug 16, 2022 at 22:34

In the case of a list of words of e.g. German, such as the headwords found in a German dictionary, you can copy those headwords, not running into any copyright problems: though you have to be careful of database protection laws. Pairings of words, such as German and a supposed French equivalent, start to cross the line from fact to creative effort, since translations are not "raw facts", they are the product of a complex process involving author judgments, where the author has to creatively devise tests for getting the correct pairing(s). Even bare written words can have the element of creativity necessary for copyright protection, especially when there is no fixed and standardized spelling system. This is an issue that arises especially outside of Europe with unwritten languages, where a dictionary author must creatively devise a system for writing down what a particular word is, based on experiences with "facts" (spoken language).

  1. At least in some parts of the , the assembly of words into lists is protected once there is a certain complexity to the database. You cannot simply copy the list.

  2. You can create your own lists, which can contain many of the same words found in published works. The key here is that they are your own lists, not derived from existing lists by adding and subtracting a little. Keeping records of how and why you assembled your list might be helpful in some jurisdictions.
    Postscriptum: Textbooks usually contain both the vocabulary they want to teach, and the vocabulary they need to build coherent sentences. A book might introduce colors by "the grass is green and the ball is red" and coincidentally use "grass" even if teaching about vegetation was not to goal of the unit. So the word list from two different textbooks will differ.

  3. When you host and (especially) share user-generated content on your site, you get into a whole lot of potential complications. Consult a specialized lawyer.

  • Your example does not fit your question. It is not a list of words from a language but pairs of words from different languages that someone has chosen to indicate a common meaning. This does include the definition, just a short version. You might edit your question. Aug 17, 2022 at 15:38
  • @GeorgeWhite, I was assuming pairs. My point is that a level A1 textbook will include both vocabulary necessary for A1 communications skills, and vocabulary that is only necessary to teach the necessary words. The three words "red means rojo" are not copyrightable. The text of an exercise with all the colors is. And the vocabulary list for the exercise may also be protected if it rises to the level of a database.
    – o.m.
    Aug 17, 2022 at 15:45
  • A list of words invokes the limited creativity of selecting words from a language. Pairing words requires a much larger set of choices since there is no universal correspondence between words in one language and another. I’m just pointing out that this may make a big difference in the correct answers. All your information about A1 etc is irrelevant to your question. Aug 17, 2022 at 15:56
  • @GeorgeWhite, selecting a word list is also creative work. If two dictionary makers independently tried to list the ten most common words in English, they might well come up with the same list if both worked carefully. But the vocabulary in a textbook is not just a list of most common words, it is a deliberate selection of words to teach the required concepts (an automatic selection) and words incidental to that (much more creative).
    – o.m.
    Aug 18, 2022 at 4:31

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