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In some seminar classes, one student presents a paper selected from top conferences or journals with the help of slides. Usually, there is a lot of discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the papers. The plots or figures are usually not prepared from scratch for the slides, but are copied from the paper by taking screenshots. But is it legal or even ethical to publish these slides online?

  • It sounds like fair use, as long as proper credits / citations are there. Perhaps ask the author if you are unsure.. – Per Alexandersson Sep 15 '15 at 14:39
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    @PerAlexandersson The author usually does not hold copyright. I guess citation is not an issue, since the first slide clearly says that the paper is from this conference/journal and written by these people. But I have seen that this is a fairly common practice in my field -- to upload slides on the seminar course webpage. – Arani Sep 15 '15 at 14:50
  • ". Usually, there is a lot of discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the papers." That constitutes "criticism," and is a form of fair use. – Tom Au Jul 9 '16 at 22:20
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It is almost certainly a copyright violation in the US. It's probably also defensible via a fair use argument (in court!). I think that the odds of getting sued or DMCA takedown noticed are pretty low, but I still wouldn't encourage the practice of uploading the property of others to the Internet without their permission. That's a reasonably big ethics issue for me. The easiest thing to do might be to use a placeholder figure "See Figure 2 page 6", or similar, in the uploaded material. You might also try asking the publisher for reproduction permissions. They all have a process, and it ought to be free and easy for purposes of commentary.

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    I don't see the ethical problem here, who is damaged? The authors definitely want their work to be widespread. The publishers are the ones that are benefiting from having it behind a paywall, but they are not going to sell less subscriptions because someone posted a couple of plots from a paper. – Davidmh Sep 15 '15 at 16:37
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    @Davidmh, you presume to speak for a very large population. The authors are unlikely to be the copyright holders, so advocating unlicensed sharing seems to have an ethical dimension if not many. My ethical notions run further than did I or did I not damage someone. Nevertheless, the copyright holder in the US has an exclusive right to control distribution and is damaged by definition if their right to control reproduction and distribution is usurped. Your argument would run to music and video distribution as well, but I think most people disagree with the idea that sharing movies is ethical. – Bill Barth Sep 15 '15 at 16:46
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    No, my argument doesn't apply to films. There the publisher is damaged, since they are not selling as many films. But films and music are a different beast, as they are art. I could take the data from the paper if available, remake the plots myself in different colours, and post them freely without copyright issues: if that is ethical, why would not be taking a few plots directly? – Davidmh Sep 15 '15 at 18:18
  • @Davidmh, because taking the plots directly is a copyright violation, a tort, and redressable in a court of law. The equivalence between remaking the plots given free access to the data is not really an ethical argument to me. My ethics don't extend to all means being equivalent when the ends turn out to be. I would certainly never encourage a student to use an unethical route to reach an ethical end when ethical means were also available. Copying a figure without license or other permission may turn out to be legal but I don't find it ethical. – Bill Barth Sep 15 '15 at 18:34
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    Illegal and unethical are different things; the fact that taking the plots is a copyright violation doesn't make it unethical (and equally, something being ethical doesn't necessarily mean you should go ahead and do it anyway). My point with remaking the plots is that that would be ethical, and the end and all side effects are the same. – Davidmh Sep 15 '15 at 19:11
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If said slides are available publicly e.g. from the author's homepage, there is no problem (but you must credit properly, which I assume is done anyway if this is part of a seminar class).

If the slides are published e.g. as add-ons to the paper on the conference webpage, and are behind a paywall there, presumably your school has permission to access them, so placing copies (or linking to them, which might be preferable) from a page private to the seminar at the school should be legal (you might need to check the precise conditions). If the page for the seminar is open to the public, it is obviously a no-no.

In any case, I am not a lawyer, and even if I was, I don't have enough details on the specific case to be able to give any advise. Legal advise can only be given by a lawyer retained by you, in full knowledge of the case. Details we as laymen consider irrelevant might make all the difference legally.

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    "there is no problem" is outright wrong in many legal jurisdictions. I've argued in my answer that it is in the US. The odds are low of a reaction from the copyright holder, I think, but that doesn't mean it's not wrong. – Bill Barth Sep 15 '15 at 18:41

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