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The field of education uses many mnemonics, such as CUPS, RACE, KWL, the CRAAP test, SQRRR, etc. Most of these were originally created by academics, and introduced in academic journals.

Many years ago I attended a college and my professor invented her own mnemonic, similar to those above, outlining the steps to teach a particular type of information. She never published this publicly and instead made this only available in a packet distributed to her students. Though I can't find my copy of this packet anymore, I don't recall any TM or Copyright, but instead a printed warning not to share the information.

Unlike the ubiquitous mnemonics which I mentioned above, her mnemonic appears in zero publications, and after 2010 or so, stopped even returning search results; only alumni of her classes heard of this term. I also can no longer find contact information for the professor (in her 80's by now). Addition, she invented many of the words falling within the mnemonics, so not only is the mnemonic very special, the words within are her own invention. Her words don't appear in a dictionary, and there are no synonyms for them in English.

I'd like to use her exact terminology in a textbook. How can I confirm that I can legally use this terminology? Do I need to search state databases for copyright? Trademark databases?

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    Was it a public or private college?
    – bdb484
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 16:33
  • It was a private college.
    – Village
    Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 3:40
  • It would be helpful if you provided, or at least linked to, expansions of the mnemonic initialisms you cite, for those who do not know them. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 18:41
  • "I don't recall any TM or Copyright" -- Note that the work doesn't need a mark like that for it to receive protection. Even if she only handed it to her students as a printed packet, for example (and not published publicly), it still gets copyright protection by default. Of course, as explained below, the terms themselves are not protected. Facts are also not protected by copyright, nor are the ideas themselves. But the exact wording as a whole is protected.
    – Brandin
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 13:27
  • "[the professor included] a printed warning not to share the information" - It's hard to know what to make of that without more context. That could have meant "don't give a copy of this packet to someone else" which you probably can't do anyway under copyright law. In an academic context it might also mean "don't tell people not in my class about this information" as a way to avoid academic unfairness. That's not a legal issue, though, it's more about academic ethics or codes of conduct. The details of what is OK in this regard depend on the institution and sometimes on the instructor too.
    – Brandin
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 13:30

1 Answer 1

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A mnemonic like CRAAP is not protected by copyright. The Copyright office says "Copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases", so you do not run afoul of copyright law using that or any other abbreviation. There is a registry of copyright-registered works, maintained by the copyright office, where authors may register their works, but legal protection exists regardless of registering.

Some abbreviations are protected under trademark law, which you can search here. There are 50 registrations that include "AAA" and three that are just "AAA", also you'll find WTF and LOL. Trademark protection doesn't forbid all uses of an registered abbreviation. It turns out that "CRAAP" is not a registered trademark, but it could be the registered trademark of a manufacturer of crab traps, so you would not likewise call your crab trap company CRAAP, but it would be okay for plumbing supplies (trademark is relative to business uses, which are described in the registration).

The only other imaginable scenario that would impede your plan is a non-disclosure agreement. For that to be relevant, there would have to be a valid contract between you and the teacher which specifically prohibits disclosure of the acronyms. The chances that there is a contract between you and the teacher is so low that it is hardly worth considering, but let's explore that for a moment. A contract is an agreement between parties where each party promises to do something that they are not already obligated to do, in exchange for getting something that they do not already have a right to. You had a contract with the college, not with the teacher. The college clearly would not prohibit "using any information gained in the course of study here", and the courts would not enforce any such "don't use" wording in a contract as unconscionable (why else do you go to college?). Your contract with the college allows you to take classes and use the knowledge that you gain. The teacher's contract with the college requires her to teach some content, and probably allows her to set certain rules of class conduct. She might have been able to toss you out of class for disseminating her methods, but at this point she has no legal recourse. NDA enforcement is generally limited to protecting "trade secrets", which are defined in terms of information with independent economic value deriving from the fact that the information is non-obvious". Also, an NDA will have a time limit associated with it except in the case of highly-sensitive personal information (social security numbers), so the courts will not enforce language saying "you can never make use of this information, or these names".

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