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I am wondering whether mathematical and scientific questions (or any type of question to be honest) is considered to be owned by the publisher? For example, if I see a math question in a textbook, am I allowed to use that question on my website, or is that legally considered an infringement?

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  • I'm referring to the questions of a homework exercise, textbook or exam paper.
    – Charles W
    Apr 16, 2015 at 15:39
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    The entirety of the book is owned by the copyright holder. Unless stated otherwise, questions inside the book are no exception.
    – Mast
    Apr 16, 2015 at 21:35
  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/1744/64
    – JRN
    Apr 17, 2015 at 1:33
  • Jurisdiction is important here, as is the purpose and mode of use.
    – Raphael
    Apr 17, 2015 at 9:15

3 Answers 3

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To write this in more detail, the text of the questions is clearly owned by the copyright holder. The ideas embodied in the questions are not protected by copyright. It's usually considered plagiarism to completely rephrase and rewrite a question without citing the original source, but plagiarism generally isn't illegal.

As noted in the downvoted answer, in some communities there is a broad acceptance of some kinds of copying when it comes to exercises, but I wouldn't want to endorse wholesale copying of homework exercises from one book to another. There are likely to be canonical problems that should be worked by every student in a particular discipline, and those would probably have the least claim to protection and the least interest in protection from the publisher. The more creativity going into the question, the more protection it has and the more enforcement you are likely to see.

Writing good exercises is challenging, but you should endeavor to do so for your website. You should cite to sources when you adapt an exercise from somewhere, and you should mention that an exercise is a classical example that all students should be able to do when you draw on something that Gauss or Euler proved as an exercise centuries ago.

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  • Thank you very much Bill! That is the answer I was looking for
    – Charles W
    Apr 16, 2015 at 16:40
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    The first paragraph is perfect, spot on. I'm less enthusiastic about the second paragraph. I'm not convinced there is broad acceptance of copying of exercises without permission, and it makes me a little uncomfortable to read something that might be taken as a suggestion that this is considered acceptable behavior. Even for canonical problems, I expect that most would take a dim view of unauthorized word-for-word copying of any non-trivial amount of text. (Use the ideas in the canonical problem? Sure, if you use your own phrasing. Copy the text word for word? I dunno.)
    – D.W.
    Apr 17, 2015 at 2:36
  • @D.W., the admonition is right there in the second clause of the first sentence of the second paragraph. Copyright is weird, and I wouldn't recommend word-for-word copying of anything that's legitimately in copyright, but lot's of old stuff isn't, so I try not to make absolute statements. An exercise copied directly, word-for-word from an 19th century text is almost certainly in the clear legally, for example. Much like computer code, there are probably only so many ways to express some canonical problems in English, so you might run out of ways to re-express some ancient exercises.
    – Bill Barth
    Apr 17, 2015 at 2:59
  • @D.W. Using excerpts of textbooks for teaching purposes is generally fine. (I know it's legal in Germany, as long as you don't publish the material in total or with access for anybody but your students.) I remember seeing some textbooks which explicitly state this. So taking exercises from these should be fine; credits would be grated but I don't recall any exercise sheet or exam having such (which hints towards accepted practice).
    – Raphael
    Apr 17, 2015 at 9:13
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Like all other creative material in the text, the exercises belong to the copyright holder.

For some exercises, which have a fairly complicated statement (e.g., a word problem), this should be quite clear. For simpler exercises, e.g., a simple set of integrals, the individual exercises (e.g., "Integrate x^2") may not be significant enough to be meaningfully covered by copyright, but the choice of what goes in the set for pedagogical purposes most certainly is.

For a simpler way to think about it: if you are finding it useful to use their exercises rather than generate your own, then that probably means there is enough creative work involved the construction to be covered by copyright.

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    I do not think that "all" exercises, or theorems, or proofs, "belong" to the copyright holder. The precise wording of more elaborate questions, yes. Archetypical questions about theorems due to Euler and Gauss and Noether do not belong to corporations. Perhaps a non-expert would have trouble knowing what is archetypical and what is not, of course... Apr 16, 2015 at 15:52
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    I think that jakebeal wasn't referring to questions such as "1+1," or also not to showing common facts such as that the order of a group element divides the order of a group. There are extremely elaborate questions in some text books that are specific to the author. I don't know about legality in that case, but 1+1 is not a helpful example. @CharlesW Apr 16, 2015 at 15:56
  • You seem to believe that creativity is the only decider. It's little different from a cookbook. The paragraph of text that describes a recipe can be copyrighted no matter how mundane. On the other hand the recipe itself, the actual information: what you add to what, what steps you are to follow, etc no matter how creative, no matter how unique is not copyrightable. The choice of what steps go in the recipe even if it's a training cookbook and the choice is for pedagogical reasons may be creative but that alone doesn't make it copyrightable.
    – Murphy
    Apr 17, 2015 at 10:46
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Copying questions from textbooks etc. and pasting them with a little or no change in something (homework sheet, exam, etc.) without citation is technically illegal, as the questions of another person are still his creative property.

But, it is still a common practice (at least where I live) for professors to “steal” exercises from textbooks or previous exams (maybe with a tiny change) and use them for homework sheets or even exams. In both cases (especially in the homework case) giving a citation is impossible. This practice is considered acceptable here as homework sheets and etc. don’t really count as a creative material the professor claims as his own.

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  • The expression of the question is intellectual property; the basic underlying problem cannot be protected under a copyright claim.
    – aeismail
    Apr 17, 2015 at 9:40

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