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There is a horror story from 4chan which I feel would make an excellent film if adapted into a full-length screenplay, and I was pondering the implications of this. The story was anonymously posted over 10 years ago.

This question can extend to anything anonymous online, though. Can you adapt anonymous reddit stories, or anonymous tumblr stories? If the original author comes out with proof of having authored the original content and accuses you of copyright infringement, is there legitimacy to that claim?

I am in the US.

Edit:

I originally asked if you could be accused of plagiarism, and commenters have helpfully informed me that plagiarism does not exist as a legal concept in the US, so I have changed the question to focus on copyright infringement.

My assumption is that an anonymous internet post does not comprise copyright or trademark, so I assume the answer is that it is fair game to adapt these things, but I will be interested to learn more.

However, this then leads me to wonder what does comprise copyright with internet content. If someone posts comics they drew online, with their signature in the comic, can you just take them and print them in a book? Does something have to be registered legally with some government agency before you can defend your rights to it as the creator? In this context, is there a difference between posting anonymously and posting with a username that has no connection to your legal name?

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    To be pedantic, you can be accused of plagiarism whether your are plagiarizing or not - anyone can accuse you of anything. Less pedantically, the real issue is whether you are infringing the copyright of the poster of the anonymous internet content by making a derivative work based upon it. Plagiarism is an academic ethics concept and not a legal concept in the United States.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 22:41
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    Also, the academic ethics concept of plagiarism is easily solved. Plagiarism is copying or using ideas from a source without attribution. Attribution of the anonymous source in some sort of footnote or credits or disclaimer can always solve a plagiarism issue. Copyright infringement which is not subject to an affirmative defense like fair use, in contrast, can only be cured with the permission of the copyright holder.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 22:56
  • plagiarism is not a thing in law. It is purely academic. You are talking about copyright infringement
    – Trish
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 23:05
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    Okay, thank you for that helpful information. I have edited the question. Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 23:15
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    Note also that your assumption is incorrect: copyrighted materials are protected by copyright.
    – bdb484
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 23:40

2 Answers 2

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If the original author comes out with proof of having authored the original content and accuses you of copyright infringement, is there legitimacy to that claim?

Yes.

Does something have to be registered legally with some government agency before you can defend your rights to it as the creator?

Yes, it does; the process is called "copyright registration". However, this step can be performed long after the material was created and distributed. The absence of a registration does not mean the work is not copyrighted.

In this context, is there a difference between posting anonymously and posting with a username that has no connection to your legal name?

There is no requirement to attach one's legal name to the work. To the extent that it meets the legal requirements for copyright (i.e., it is an original work, etc), it is copyrighted automatically, there is even no need for an explicit notice or c-in-a-circle symbol or anything like that.

I believe marking the copyright appropriately on the work can yield some extra rights to the extent that an infringing party cannot claim they were unaware of the copyright status, but having this defense is of limited value.

I feel would make an excellent film if adapted into a full-length screenplay, and I was pondering the implications of this.

Note that copyright only covers the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. You can freely take some of the ideas of the story and make a screenplay that would not necessarily be a derived work.

"The hero is captured, and the villain escapes" is not copyrightable. If you take on too many details however, it may be considered a derived work.

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  • Copyright registration is a requirement in only a limited number of jurisdictions- an internet post might have been published in any jurisdiction. Even in countries where this is a requirement, it only serves as a prerequisite to legal action.
    – Dale M
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 9:41
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If the original author comes out with proof of having authored the original content and accuses you of copyright infringement, is there legitimacy to that claim?

This is crucial. The material is protected by copyright, but copyright is only effective if it is enforceable. If you cannot identify the author, you cannot ask for permission to create a derivative work. If you create a derivative work without permission, the owner of the copyright can sue for damages. To succeed, the owner of the copyright has to prove ownership of the copyright, This could be difficult for "a horror story from 4chan." How does the true author establish authorship? (Conversely, what prevents people with illegitimate claims from pursuing them in court? You could face any number of competing infringement suits.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that many sites require contributions to be licensed. The license may permit you to create a derivative work without further permission -- but relying on that license may require you to release your derivative work under the sale license, which could impede your ability to protect your derivative work or to make money from it.

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  • Proving ownership of an internet post is trivial - prove you own the account and we’re done.
    – Dale M
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 9:42
  • @DaleM I could very easily be wrong, but I was under the impression that that was impossible by design with 4chan. Posters are limited to just giving a username perhaps?
    – User65535
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 15:46
  • @User65535 they can log in can’t they? That’s strong evidence they own the account, and also that they own whatever they posted on it.
    – Dale M
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 20:02
  • @DaleM I could be wrong, I have never used it, but I thought the idea of these message boards was that there was no log in, anyone could post any content with any username.
    – User65535
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 20:49
  • @User65535: Checking wikipedia, 4Chan does allow users to "sign" their work using tripcodes (basically, you make up a "password" and the hash of that "password" is displayed to the public). Being able to generate a specific tripcode is evidence that of authorship for any posts that use that tripcode.
    – Brian
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 15:14

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