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I have access to a powerpoint presentation as a student. These slides are part of the course content and every single slide has disclaimer at the bottom that says

@McGraw-Hill Education

Permission required for reproduction or display

I do not aim to copy the material and redistribute it in any way. Instead what I wish to do is learn the material from the slides and then write notes and upload them to a website. But since I learned from the slides, I believe my notes, that will be uploaded/redistributed on another platform to a general audience, will most likely end up looking to a certain extent very much identical to the notes, as if I had copied them directly! Is there any legal issue that should concern me here? Should I move forward with my plan?

For your information, the texts in these slides are academic in nature and their content is as summarized as possible. So, on one hand, the texts will be pretty similar regardless the textbook, university, country, since they all talk about the exact same material. And on the other hand, for an introductory course into this scientific field, the texts could not, or should not, be any more summarized nor detailed. Consequently, me too, my notes are not to be any more lengthy, because that would be beyond the scope of the course, and also, not any shorter, because then they will be missing critical details... As a result, I expect my notes to look extremely similar to the "original source"... Is this something to worry me?

2 Answers 2

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I assume that the instructor made these slides available to students in the course e.g. via a class website. Such distribution is probably infringing. Then you downloaded the slides and used them as a basis for creating notes of your own. The product that you distribute will be very similar to the protected slides, which is what it takes to get sued for copyright infringement.

The first thing to do is do everything you can think of to make your work not look like a copy of the original. Good luck with that: Academia SE might be useful for practical suggestions on that. The second thing to do is prepare your defense, in case of a lawsuit (which you want to avoid). In the US, you can avail yourself of the "fair use" defense. The essence of the argument is that your use is educational in nature, the original is not a highly creative piece of artwork (it is more a factual recounting), the degree of apparent copying is small, your use does not affect the market for the protected work, and your use is highly transformative.

In addition, the courts measure the similarity of two works (evaluating the proof that there was copying) in terms of the possible different expressions of certain ideas. A smidgen of creativity may be involved in formatting a bar graph, but realistically it is probable that some two bar graphs representing the same fact will accidentally look alike. You would have to advance and support an argument of accidental similarity if sued, the court will not spontaneously conclude "But that similarity could just be an accident". The deck is stacked against you, in that the presence of "substantial similarity" is taken to be proof of copying, but the "merger doctrine" can be an effective defense.

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    "Such distribution is probably infringing." Distribution to a limited group for instructional purposes in connection with classroom teaching is a classic example of fair use, although of curse the detailed facts matter. In non-US countries, this may well come under an exception to copyright, depending on the country and the specifics of hr situation. Or of course the instructor or the school might have purchased a course package which includes the right to distribute copies to students. Oct 28, 2022 at 23:27
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    @DavidSiegel "might have purchased...": Indeed. Publishers don't create educational material for the purpose of preventing its use by educators.
    – phoog
    Oct 29, 2022 at 8:43
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    @phoog Quite true.On the other hand educators have been known to make unpaid use of content beyond what fair use permits. We have no way to know the status of this case, and IMO should not make assumptions, as the answer seems to. Oct 29, 2022 at 15:34
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Facts are not subject to copyright. Only a specific expression of a fact.

When you describe a fact in your own words, then you are the sole copyright owner of that description, no matter who taught you that fact.

But keep in mind that in the world of academia it is customary to always state your sources. But that's not a legal requirement. That's a topic for Academia Stack Exchange.

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    "Only a specific expression of a fact": and then only if it's sufficiently original and creative. If someone creates a slide saying "J. S. Bach lived from 1685 to 1750," or "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is based on Hamlet," nobody will prevail in an infringement claim even if they have that exact sentence in their copyright-protected work.
    – phoog
    Oct 29, 2022 at 8:51

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