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If there was a situation where a journalist wanted to publish a back and forth conversation between two commenters that occurred in the Youtube comments section of a video by quoting the entire conversation and citing the video and commenters involved, would they legally be allowed to do so since the conversation was held online, where the comments were submitted in a public forum?

Perhaps if the answer to the preceding question was no, would it be considered legal for the journalist to give a direct quote of the entire conversation (provided he or she cites who the other commenter was and what video the commentary is located under) if the journalist was the other commenter personally involved in the conversation? What if the journalist did not ask the other commenter for permission to use their comments (although quoted and cited properly) in the piece? Would it still be legal since it was posted in a public forum?

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If publishing the content qualifies as fair-use, then that's the answer.

If not, then Google's terms of service apply:

Rights you Grant

You retain ownership rights in your Content. However, we do require you to grant certain rights to YouTube and other users of the Service, as described below.

License to YouTube

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License to Other Users

You also grant each other user of the Service a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to access your Content through the Service, and to use that Content, including to reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works, display, and perform it, only as enabled by a feature of the Service (such as video playback or embeds). For clarity, this license does not grant any rights or permissions for a user to make use of your Content independent of the Service.

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Forum does not matter

Whether the material are Youtube comments visible to everyone with internet, or an internal report of a company prepared by one person for the CEO’s eyes only, copyright applies exactly the same way.

There can be non-copyright issues, but I assume those do not apply here, for instance:

  • classified information (e.g. nuclear bomb blueprints - but see U.S. v. Progressive)
  • privacy laws (e.g. photos of a famous actor in his private house)

Journalists publish stuff, news at 11

In the , in , and I assume in every functioning democracy, journalists publish conversations, notes, documents etc. without the consent of whoever produced those documents. The point of investigative journalism is that they publish stuff that other people would rather keep hidden, without getting sued to oblivion for it. (Arguably, countries where this is not possible tend to devolve into non-democracies at a relatively quick rate.)

Journalists are not protected in themselves; rather, activities typically associated by journalism are. In the US, that is part of the doctrine of "fair use". (Pedantic note: "fair use" is a US-specific term, and its use as a general term for similar copyright exceptions in non-US jurisdictions should be avoided, because the exact scope of the exception varies a lot across jurisdictions.)

What’s the line of fair use?

In the , fair use analysis famously uses a four-point balancing test.

In the case of journalism activities, #1 (purpose and character of use) will always weigh very heavily in favor of the defendant.

In most cases, #4 (impact on market value) will be favorable as well. Here, few people can be expected to pay for a book "the full comments under Youtube video #4256231", and not just because they are public.

Finally, #3 (amount and substantiality) might be more or less unfavorable. Citing the full conversation makes a fair use claim weaker on its face, but one might argue that the full conversation is needed to understand context of the good bits. The conversation might also be as short as a few paragraphs, or fill a full book length.

The balancing test leaves quite a lot of margin of appreciation to the judge. However, I believe the case presented would almost certainly be fair use. Cases that clearly fail #3 and #4 (for instance, publishing in extenso internal reports of a company) have been judged fair use before.

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