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Sometimes when I am writing a review blog post (or an answer on SE), it is convenient to include a figure from the original paper. Some journals (say PNAS) have policies that explicitly allow non-commercial reproduction of figures:

Anyone may, without requesting permission, use original figures or tables published in PNAS for noncommercial and educational use (i.e., in a review article, in a book that is not for sale) provided that the original source and the applicable copyright notice are cited.

Others, however, seem to explicitly disallow this, of note is the Nature Publishing Group. Today, I had to fill in an online form on RightsLink in order to ensure I could use a figure in my post. I didn't have to pay anything, and the rights were granted instantly after completing the form, but it was still a hassle. The biggest hassle is having to go to each journal's website to check their policies. Hence the questions:

  1. Is there a general law like fair-use that allows me to place figures from published papers inside blog posts for non-commercial commentary/review purposes?
  2. What if your blog has ads that generate revenue, is the use of the figures no longer non-commercial? What about SE that generates revenue but not for the poster?
  3. Is there any extra etiquette one should keep in mind for including figures in blog posts?
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Some thoughts on this issue:

  • First, the fair use doctrine is tricky. Assuming you're not ready to hire a lawyer, play it safe. If you're not sure, ask for permission. If you're asked to remove something, do it.
  • There has been some noise a few years back on the topic of blogging and reuse of scientific figures. See here, there and there for some links to that affair. The conclusion I would draw is, again: play it safe.
  • In at least some jurisdictions (France is one), having ads on your web will mean your blog is considered a commercial publication. Asserting fair use for commercial works is typically harder, though this distinction tends to diminish (here).
  • Attribute figures (source + link). Always. It's just good manners.

I'll finish by a general observation related to copyright law in academia, as I see it (at least around me): people tend to just do stuff, and then play dumb if they get caught (which rarely happens). Lots of researchers knowingly put up (without authorization) PDF files of their papers on their website, and say “I'll just remove them if I am asked too”.

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    Laws regarding fair use and copyright vary significantly by country. – Ben Norris Oct 12 '12 at 10:40
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I also write a blog, and sometimes I also tend to pull images from papers or bookstores.

I do not monetize in my blog, so I'm safe there, and as far as I remember, the current state of the law is that you receive a cease and desist before anything else can happen, so the worst that can happen is that you get a slap in the hand, for the case of the USA.

Now, other countries like Japan just passed really strict laws, where you are not allowed to host anything that is not copyrighted or you face 10 years in prison (no Cease and Desist).

So be sure to see where your blog is hosted, and whether you are hosting anything at all.

One suggestion I tend to follow is to publish things from Arxiv and Wikipedia, which are both for free use.

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    Things from Wikipedia are indeed licensed for re-use (under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license, specifically), but this is not true for the arXiv. I.e., hosting your own copy of an arXiv paper or taking figures from it is no different legally from any other paper. Authors of arXiv papers may be more likely to be open to this, but it's still polite to ask. – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 12 '12 at 14:22

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