For my thesis I have had to go through many different sources to find relevant literature. I want to share my reading list with others to make it easier for people who want to study the same topic to find relevant information. I have set up a little database with meta info (title / journal / author / date / abstract). My idea is to put this online so others can freely browse this. Is there any copyright issue (or otherwise important issue) to take into account? Can I put the abstracts online as well?

Each paper links to the journal's official website and I did not put any actual paper or PDF online.

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    Well, you can certainly post your thesis online, and presumably your thesis has a bibliography section, so... – JeffE Jul 28 '14 at 13:43
  • Yes but there are no abstracts in the bibliography... – User402841 Jul 28 '14 at 19:31
  • It sounds like what you are describing is an annotated bibliography. In as far as publishing a list of citations and your own annotations about them, it should be legal to publish on a personal website. Abstracts may be a different story as those IP are often owned by publishers. – user479 Jul 29 '14 at 19:54

With the hopefully obvious caveat that I'm not a lawyer and this is not legal advice: at least in the US, this is probably fine. Copyright law (17 USC § 102) applies to "original works of authorship," not to ideas, and I think everyone would agree the metadata of an article's publication (including journal name, author, and date) fall in the latter category, not the former. Otherwise the whole system of academic citation would be untenable!

The title and abstract, on the other hand, are content created by the articles' authors and are protected by copyright law, but I think it's quite likely that fair use (17 USC § 107) protects you from being held liable for using them in the manner you describe. With reference to the four conditions to be considered when determining fair use:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

You say it's a free, noncommercial endeavor, so that works in your favor

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

It's an academic article; the whole purpose of its existence is to be widely disseminated

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole

The title and abstract are a small part of the work

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

Using the title and abstract in a database like this will more likely increase the market for the original paper than decrease it (which is in fact the entire point of having an abstract)

In fact, you would hardly be the first person to do something like this. In high energy physics, INSPIRE already aggregates abstracts and metadata from nearly all published papers.

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    As correctly stated, this only applies to the US. E.g., the German copyright does not have anything directly comparable to free use. – Wrzlprmft Jul 29 '14 at 7:49

Disclaimer: The following is not legal advice.

As the copyright laws of many countries may apply, you would have to check your projects compatibility with each of them, which you might consider a disproportional amount of work. However, there is a minimum allowance any country’s copyright laws have to make to be any reasonable (e.g., without which most journalism would be illegal). Assuming these, one can make the following thoughts:

There are only two things, to which copyright laws will apply: The title and the abstract. Everything else would at least fail to be over the threshold of originality (and probably many other criterions).

Now, a reasonable copyright law has to have some mechanism that allows for short quotations: In the U.S. this would be covered by fair use and maybe something else; Germany has a special paragraph for quotations, etc. However, at least in some countries, if not all, there are no clear legal limits regarding the circumstances and length of a quotation – e.g., the U.S. fair use is “only” likely to be in your favour as explained by David Z. While the title can be safely assumed to be legal to quote, the abstract is in this grey area (under the above assumptions).

Hence I would refrain from publishing the abstracts (even more so, as they are usually freely available on the Journal’s home page, which you can link).

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Most publishers has a set, automatic way to get permissions to republish figures, tables, parts of text etc and also a rather elaborate copyright section. To study these I think the second best thing after taking the opinion of a lawyer. Note, they can vary publisher by publisher.

In my experience, journals are often broadcast abstracts eg in RSS feeds with a copyright tag, so I guess they consider it copyrighted but more or less sharable content.

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There's generally no copyright issue. You're giving fair credit assignment. Abstracts should be considered "marketing material" -- freely publishable (with proper references), as you're helping the author(s) as much as yourself.

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    Should has nothing to do with it. Abstracts are definitely covered by copyright and should not be used without permission unless they are clearly licensed in a way that allows reuse. The rest of the metadata (title, dates, journal name, author list, pages, etc) is clearly not covered by copyright, though annotations from an aggregator (like Lexis-Nexis) could be. – Bill Barth Jul 28 '14 at 15:30
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    @JeffE: In the US, a mere collection of facts is not copyrightable. For this I quote the US Copyright Office Circular page 3 about what is not covered by copyright. Metadata is clearly not a work of original authorship eligible for copyright protection. See also the US Supreme Court's 1991 decision in the Feist case. – Bill Barth Jul 28 '14 at 23:04
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    @BillBarth: Bill, please do not cite US Law just to make it up. Your interpretation of the law is simply wrong. A fact can be subject to copyright. – TheDoctor Jul 29 '14 at 1:43
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    @JeffE: My quick search on the MLB case has the league losing. Perhaps you have a cite? I don't think the copyright status of titles and other bibliographic information is unclear at all. Do you have a citation on point? – Bill Barth Jul 29 '14 at 2:43
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    @MarkJ "marketing material" is not a term that is used or would change anything for US or international copyright laws; and marketing material as such definitely has the same restrictions as anything else - the whole graphics design industry finance relies on the fact that you need explicit permission from the author for every repeated publishing of the same material; the fact that it was in TV or newspaper yesterday doesn't give anyone automatic permission to publish it today. – Peteris Jul 29 '14 at 6:53

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