I finished reading a textbook of about 250 pages. For my personal reference, I created a summary in note form of about 30 pages. Formulations are close to the original text with some variation on my part, and there are literal quotes. I don't consider it a replacement of the book (obviously?).

What can I do with this summary? Is it fair to give it to friends who are interested in the topic? What about students? Can I even publish it online?

I am aware that laws may play into this. The book has been published in the U.S., I live in Germany.

  • 7
    The practical answer is likely to be "Whatever you want."
    – JeffE
    Apr 19, 2013 at 16:55
  • The only thing that springs to mind, as far as the US goes, is "Fair Use". You should be fine to do whatever you want with it. Apr 19, 2013 at 17:36
  • Fair use probably does not cover such a summary, although I agree with JeffE that in practice nobody is going to sue you. Apr 19, 2013 at 19:25

2 Answers 2


There are two questions, namely what you can do legally and what the community would consider acceptable.

Legally, distributing such a summary is probably a copyright violation if you borrow too much from the original; in the U.S., it would be considered a derivative work (the legal definition includes "abridgment" and "condensation" as forms of derivative work). In that case, it would be illegal to distribute it without permission from the copyright holder. On the other hand, you are not likely to get in trouble unless you offend the author or publisher. The easiest way to offend the publisher would be if they view your summary as competition that might decrease sales of the book, but they might take a strict approach to copyright enforcement in any case (it depends on the publisher, and I would guess that a nonprofit publisher might be more understanding than a big commercial publisher). In practice, the worst case scenario is probably being forced to take down any copies you had posted online. You could be sued, but that seems unlikely to me.

The research community is likely to take a less strict approach than the law. If you distribute the summary privately (e.g., just to friends or students), then nobody is likely to find out or care. If you post it online, then it's more likely to attract attention, but it won't necessarily be negative attention. That depends on how you've written it.

You should keep several things in mind to avoid causing offense:

  1. You should be absolutely clear about what you have done: what's a direct quote, what's a mildly reworded version of the author's words, what's a summary in your own words. You need to be careful about distinguishing your own interpretaton from the author's, and you can run into trouble in two directions, either by seeming to take credit for observations that are explained in the book, or by seeming to attribute your own ideas or organization to the author. This is a difficult balancing act, which is easy to mess up. Even if you are very careful, the author may still feel that you are distorting the emphasis on different topics, for example.

  2. You should be very careful about correctness. I would be unhappy if someone circulated a summary of a book of mine that had mistakes in it.

I would not recommend asking the author for permission, since that would put the author in an awkward position (of having to either endorse or object to your summary). If the author discovers your summary and complains, then I feel professional courtesy requires you to make changes or take it down.

Personally, I would probably not post it online, but opinions could differ.


You can:

  • Criticise it: Do you disagree with the authors about some topics/methods? Do you have some ideas on how to enhance the book? Discuss them with your peers.
  • Rephrase it: You can rewrite the summary with your own words and publish it as Notes on XXX where XXX is the book topic.
  • Publish a Book Review out of it.
  • KEEP it to refresh your knowledge about the topic. In case you forgot or its not directly related to your research.

  • Depends on the topic, you might write a blog about it; if you have one.

  • 1
    Maybe that was not clear enough from my question: I'd like to know what I am allowed to do.
    – Raphael
    Apr 21, 2013 at 9:27

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