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Most books have something like "no part of this work may be copied" written on their first page. Are you allowed to take notes on a book after you have purchased it with a note taking app, or would that count as a derivative work, which is not allowed either? The notes would be stored on your device after you have saved them with note taking app.

I'm specifically asking about Germany.

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  • Can you explain how any part of the book would be copied by the note taking app? Somehow, you left that out of your description. Does it make a photo that you can annotate with your own text? Obviously note taking by itself is not illegal, or schools and universities would be knee deep in lawsuits.
    – nvoigt
    Mar 7, 2023 at 14:10

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Copyright is not absolute. While copyright is reserved by default, copyright law contains many exceptions, and a disclaimer in a book's imprint cannot override them. What exceptions are available depends on national laws. The fair use exception is famous, but specific to U.S. law. German law instead provides a number of exceptions for specific situations. For example:

  • § 51 UrhG: publication of citations is legal, if the amount of cited material is justified by the specific context. In particular, including citations is justified in academic works that discuss the cited work.

  • § 53 Abs 1 UrhG: private copies are allowed, as long as the original was acquired in a manner that was not obviously illegal, and as long as the copy is not used directly or indirectly for commercial purposes. See the German Wikipedia Article Privatkopie for context. Limitation: entire books may only be duplicated by manual transcription.

  • § 53 Abs 2 UrhG: analogue (non-digital) copies for personal purposes are allowed in some additional circumstances.

  • And some specific exceptions for schools, teaching, research, and data mining.

What does this mean for taking notes?

  • Notes that capture your own thoughts, or a summary of the copyrighted material in your own words, are not derivatives in the sense of copyright. (However, German copyright law doesn't have a 1:1 equivalent to the term “derivative”. Instead, “adaptation” might be a better fit for the German Bearbeitung.)

  • If these notes are purely personal, you can likely copy parts of the book into your notes. For example, this might cover a diary in which you write down poems that you like.

  • Quotes/citations can be allowed when necessary to discuss the book in your notes. Remember to clearly cite the source.

Personally, I keep extensive notes in digital form, for personal and for work purposes, and make extensive use of my right to cite parts of others' works, as necessary for discussion my notes. I generally keep those citations down to a level so that my notes could be published without copyright concerns, even if quoting longer passages could be allowed as an § 53 private copy.

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  • "Fair use" is also mentioned in the Bern convention. Even if the term is not used as such in other countries' codes it would not be incorrect to refer to their exceptions as "fair use" (e.g. § 51 UrhG). "Remember to clearly cite the source": is taking the notes under a title such as "notes on [Title] by [Author]" sufficiently clear?
    – phoog
    Mar 7, 2023 at 14:08
  • @phoog You're probably referencing Article 10 of the Berne convention, which requires a copyright exception for quotations made according to “fair practice”. UrhG requires attribution per § 63 but doesn't make concrete rules. The author's name should always be given. Personally, I'm heavily influenced by academic conventions and would expect other citation elements (titles, years, URLs, locators, publishers, ISBNs) depending on context. But there doesn't seem to be recent case law on those aspects.
    – amon
    Mar 7, 2023 at 15:23
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You are not allowed to copy anything. But I read this book about a pirate with a wooden leg who managed to get on board of a ship looking for a huge treasure as the ship cook, and who then organised a mutiny that would have succeeded if it hadn't been for that meddling kid... And although this is based on the book, it isn't copy.

You are not allowed to copy. You are allowed to take down notes. Notes are not a derivative work. And if you copy privately only then nobody will know, so you won't get sued, and if you did, any punishment would be minimal.

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    "you are not allowed to copy": this is not correct. For example, you are allowed to quote passages of the book in your notes. This is a classic example of fair use even if the notes are published; it's certainly not forbidden if they aren't published.
    – phoog
    Mar 7, 2023 at 13:49
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    Or you could publish them as a study guide for Treasure Island, which would also not be a derivative work.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 7, 2023 at 13:49

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