Copyright question

I am in the process of setting up an English learning website in China, and most of the content for my eBooks requires extensive research and common knowledge (grammar, common sentences etc). I want to ensure that I compile eBooks with absolute integrity, so I have a key question I hope you will be able to answer:

Is it okay for me to copy-paste-modify any website text that is common knowledge and then simply cite the sources in the eBook?

Any info you may have regarding eBook/website copyrights would be appreciated.

The legal test is this: are you copying a substantial part of the original work.

Rather than answer "yes" or "no" to your question, I think it's better to differentiate here between:

  • the underlying ideas; and
  • the form in which they are expressed.

It will not be an infringement of copyright to take ideas about the English language or English language teaching that are "common knowledge" and re-write them in your own words. However, if you copy the form in which the ideas are expressed, then there is a risk of copyright infringement.

As regards ideas that aren't "common knowledge", these too can be copied providing the form of expression is not copied. Such copying without attribution will however be plagiarism, an academic offence rather than a legal wrong.

A good practical test is to ask someone with knowledge of the relevant field to compare the two works, and to consider whether it looks as if one has been copied from the other. If it looks as if ideas have been copied without attribution, that suggests plagiarism. If it looks as if phrases/sentences have been copied, that suggests copyright infringement - irrespective of attribution, subject to my comments below.

One defence to a claim of copyright infringement that may be relevant to you is "fair dealing for the purposes of criticism or review". See:

This defence requires attribution.

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