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Lets say I decided to write a small textbook, similar to how people have all sorts of "Learn to Program" books, but for other subjects like Calc, Chemistry, or similar. If I used examples problems, say from https://www.math.ucdavis.edu/~kouba/ProblemsList.html or http://tutorial.math.lamar.edu/Classes/CalcI/CalcI.aspx

(for calc, popular sites used for practice)

Would it be legal to just copy paste those problems (not the whole webpage but pick and choosing certain problems) in the book?

The reason Im asking is because Ive seen a few books like this, and always wondered if they had to come up with problems on their own, or if they pulled from a bank. Obviously lots of calc problems are similar to eachother, or the exact same, so I figure there is no copyright on any given problem, but I wasnt sure how it worked. Interested to find out!

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    Just because they are online does not mean you have any legal right to copy/paste them and claim them as your own work. – Jon Custer Jun 27 at 18:58
  • @JonCuster Thats what I figured, so even though these problems appear in multiple places exactly, you would have to cite the problem from the source you get it from? That or create your own example? – ChrisM Jun 27 at 19:35
  • Note that citing it, alone, is not enough. That doesn't absolve you from the law. You still need permission. Citing only helps you avoid plagiarism, not copyright violation. – Buffy Jun 27 at 19:38
  • Copy-pasting is almost never a good idea in academia; even when legal, it is usually considered plagiarism, and even when not plagiarism, it will make you look like a plagiarist who can't be bothered to build his own sentences. Copying the ideas while stating the problems in your own words, however, is usually considered okay unless you are copying many problems from one and the same source. – darij grinberg Jun 27 at 20:18
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In general, no. You may not republish materials found on the web unless you attend to copyright laws in your jurisdiction. These laws vary quite a lot, but for your intended purpose - inclusion in a book - you will need permission in most places.

Sometimes the original publisher will explicitly give permission on a web page, such as a Creative Commons permissive license or a statement the the material is public domain. But even a license comes with restrictions, such as, perhaps, attribution.

Sometimes the original publisher will include something like terms of service like these from Lamar University. Your use is bound by those unless you make other arrangements with the copyright holder.

In the absence of any statement to the contrary, you should probably assume that the creator or other copyright holder "reserves all rights".

When in doubt you can and should contact the creator of any materials. Both of the links you provide actually have contact information.

In addition to copyright law, for which you can be sued, there is the question of plagiarism. It is considered unethical to claim any work created by others as if it were your own.

I'll note for the record that there are a few exceptions to copyright law, but they don't include republishing the work of others. If those problems have "value", then that value is owed to the creators.

Also, copyrights generally expire, but the terms are normally very long - something close to 100 years at this point.


There is one subtlety, however, that partly explains why you see the "same" questions in multiple places. Note that it is words and "expression" that is the subject of copyright, not ideas. The only "ideas" that can be protected from reuse are those covered by explicit patent. That is a completely different thing. There are some things, however, for which there may be only one way to properly express it in a given language.

"Integrate f(x) = sin(x)"

is one of those things. The sin function and integration are ideas with common terms. There are very few other ways to write that problem. So it will appear in that form or one closely similar to it in most calculus books. In general, the ideas are free to use.


Finally, you seem to be asking for legal advice and no one here can give it. In particular, no one here can give you permission to do something that is illegal to do under civil or criminal law. I am not a lawyer. My advice is conservative to help you avoid stepping into a problem that is best avoided.

  • Thanks for the answer, so in general, even a problem that appears in multiple places over the web because it is a common calc or chemistry question, has to be cited for the place you specifically grabbed it from? How would they know that you didn't just "create" the problem from memory of something you once did in class or something? I feel like it would be very difficult to prove you took it from THEIR website versus others... but in general, a citation of one would cover it? – ChrisM Jun 27 at 19:38
  • You are confusing plagiarism (citing) and copyright violation (needing permission). They are not the same, but both apply. – Buffy Jun 27 at 19:39
  • I guess Im confused a little on which apply when in this scenario. So if I wrote a book, and in that book I had question 1 from tutorial.math.lamar.edu/Problems/CalcI/DefnOfLimit.aspx as an example in there, and I solved it similar, but not word for word, how they did in their solutions, and they saw my book and noticed its the same problem, would they have a basis for any kind of action? How could they prove I didnt just come up with something that coincidentally is what they used? Simple problems like this would be easy to come up with, and the solution the same – ChrisM Jun 27 at 19:43
  • See my update on the distinction between "ideas" and expression of ideas. But if you are thinking of it as copying, then you are probably not doing the right thing. – Buffy Jun 27 at 19:47
  • Just noticed your edit, and thank you that clears it up a bit. Im not asking for legal advice for me, it actually was just something I thought about while reviewing a book while I was tutoring. I came across 2 problems that were nearly identical and it got me thinking how the law works in these cases! I do appreciate your response, it makes sense – ChrisM Jun 27 at 19:47
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In any field, there are some problems that are so basic that almost any book should include something like them. If this is the case, you do not need to cite them, even if you got the idea for including them by looking in a textbook. For example:

Find ∫ x sin(x) dx.

But it's a bad idea to copy more complicated problems verbatim. If there is a substantial text component of the problem, then you are probably violating copyright by copying and pasting. And if you don't know the field well enough to tell the difference between basic problems and complicated problems, and you can't modify problems to avoid committing copyright violations, then you shouldn't be writing a textbook, or putting problems on your webpage.

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