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Can FAQs Be Copyrighted? 139

Posted by timothy
from the obvious-answers dept.
scubacuda writes: "Are FAQs copywritable? Judge Barbara B. Crabb, of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, in the case Mist-On Systems, Inc. v. Gilley's European Tan Spa, didn't think so."
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Can FAQs Be Copyrighted?

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  • What about a FAQ for FAQ
  • by btempleton (149110) on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @04:38AM (#3564265) Homepage
    They simply said that you can't copyright the idea of an FAQ or the format of an FAQ, or a list of obvious questions.

    If the FAQ had been swiped, with answers copied verbatim, it would have been a different ruling. The court ruled the competitor's FAQ was sufficiently different to not be an infringement, or so the article you point at said.

    So this is much ado over nothing.
    • by Bastian (66383) on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @04:48AM (#3564293)
      READ THE DAMN ARTICLE BEFORE YOU POST IT ON THE MAIN PAGE!

      This court case is so banal it doesn't even deserve mention. The plaintiff was suing the defendant on the grounds that it basically ripped off the idea of having a FAQ at all, which is about as asinine as having one publisher sue another for putting a synopsis on the back of a book. It wasn't even over whether one FAQ was a copy of the other - they didn't cover the same questions or use the same answers to those questions that were the same.

      What's next, Slashdot posting an article about a court ruling that it is indeed legal for everyone to write books about how to use computer software without paying royalties to O'Rielly?
      • Yep, about as banal as BT suing Prodigy over a hyperlinks patent [theregister.co.uk]. Face it, anyone can make a crazy legal claim when it comes to intellectual property. Maybe someone should publish an "intellectual property lawsuit FAQ" somewhere to prevent such frivolous legal action in the future ;)
        • Maybe someone should publish an "intellectual property lawsuit FAQ" somewhere to prevent such frivolous legal action in the future ;)

          Not so sure about that one... What if the lawyer that wrote a similar named FAQ (for the benefit of his fellow landsharks) takes offense, and sues you? You'd trigger frivolous legal action, rather than prevent some ;-)

      • I also must wonder about the people who submit things like this - are they trying to make the editors look like idiots, or are they honestly this confused after hearing about the article? (Since if they read the article, someone else might submit it before them and get the credit)
      • This court case is so banal it doesn't even deserve mention. The plaintiff was suing the defendant on the grounds that it basically ripped off the idea of having a FAQ at all, which is about as asinine as having one publisher sue another for putting a synopsis on the back of a book.

        banal, yes, but I wouldn't say it doesn't deserve mention. it does deserve being described correctly, though.

        it reminds me of a local free computer magazine/ad rag that sued a new rival. their complaint? the rival had a list of local BBSes, which "clearly" had been invented by the first computer rag.

        rather than fight, the new struggling computer rag stopped carrying BBS listings. they later folded.

        cases like these deserve mention because we need to convince people of the need to fight idiotic IP claims like this.

    • Sure a FAQ can be copyrighted, its contents that is. If you build a FAQ with answers from copyright material, like citations from books, blueprints of a car, tc. this wil be copyrighted.

      Even the FAQ presentation can be protected, as intelectual creation.
    • I hate to read articles about legal issues on Slashdot, because they often show no understanding of the issues at all. Really, you should stick to technical and pop cultural issues.

      As the parent correctly states, the court did not say FAQs are not copyrightable, it said there was no copyright infringment in this case. Here is the gist of the article (pasted):

      According to the court, "when the two works are compared side-by-side, similarities are evident." That is because "both web pages utilize the Frequently Asked Questions format," "both web pages use common words to begin each question, such as 'how,' 'can,' 'is,' 'what,' and 'will,'" and because "both web pages focus on a spray-on form of sunless tanning" and "provide similar information."

      Notwithstanding the foregoing similarities, the court held that "these superficial similarities fall short of proving copying" because they are not the equivalent of copying constituent elements of the work that are original. According to the court and prior case law, regardless of the "original authorship" contained in a work, "the facts and ideas it exposes are free for the taking."
    • The court said exactly that -- and that is what concerns me. Directly from the article:

      Taking it a step further, the court held that "a business cannot copyright a Frequently Asked Questions page"

      There's nothing unclear about that whatsoever. The "Taking it a step further" part implies that in addition to disallowing copyright of the format or key phrases of typical FAQ questions, the court also disallows copyright of the entire FAQ page.

      If you ask me, the court was trying to flex its muscles and make a decision that would have a long lasting effect on the internet. Perhaps the judge is going to retire soon and is worrying about what kind of legacy he leaves behind. But either way, they really overstepped their bounds. Not that I'm a lawyer, but this seems to contradict all forms of copyright law I've ever read about.

      • There's nothing unclear about that whatsoever.

        I didn't think so either; that's why I submitted the article!

        If you ask me, the court was trying to flex its muscles and make a decision that would have a long lasting effect on the internet.

        Agreed. I posted it because it's often the most *insignificant* rulings that subsequent lawyers draw on to later decisions.

        Not that I'm a lawyer, but this seems to contradict all forms of copyright law I've ever read about.

        Agreed here too. A lot seems very counterintuitive to how one might ordinarily interpret copyright law.

      • They did not over step their bounds. If you think about it what the decided is really common sense. What is a FAQ? A FAQ is a a list of Frequently Asked Questions. What does Frequently mean? It means a lot or many. This mean that a FAQ is a list of questions that gets asked many times repeated in some form or another.
        Well, someone might put together the FAQ document, but it not wholly their work. The questions in some part come from the people asking the questions. When was the last time you saw a FAQ with the list of peope asking the questions (thus giving credit to the author of the question(s))? I haven't. Probably, to give credit where it is due, only the first few authors would have to be listed, and the rest might be represented by et. al. (or something like that). I not 100% sure on that point.
        The main item is that the person, persons, or company that puts together the FAQ document did not entirely author the document themselves. SO why should they be able to get the copyright when they are not giving credit to everyone who deserves credit (which is required for books, magazines, etc.).
        FAQ documents should not be copyrighted.
        • I would agree that if the author were to exactly or nearly quote a person's question, then the author should cite the source of the question. Odds are, however, that the author summarized each set of questions from many different people into one clearly-phrased, properly-targetted question that complements the desired answer. Plus, as you said, the questions are "frequently-asked" and as such, they are essentially common knowledge (or lack-of-knowledge in this case). And we all know from writing papers in school that you don't have to cite the source of obvious information.

          Compilations of information and the exact expression of that information is definitely copyrightable. Not only that, but the answers to those questions are obviously not common knowledge or else so many people would not be asking them. The fact is, someone put time into creating the document, answering the questions, and publishing the work. There was some thinking involved in selecting the appropriate questions, but also in categorizing and answering them in a way that would convey the information clearly.

          One must think about the reason for copyright law in the first place. The laws are created to encourage the sharing of knowledge. Without copyright protection, the company might not want to publish their FAQ. They would be worried that someone would steal their work and claim it as their own. In this case, many obvious questions would inevitably go unanswered.

          The court was justified in saying that the format and conventions used in creating a FAQ is simply a standardization on the best known method of representing the answers to commonly-asked questions. Denying that the format is copyrightable was adequate in this case since it addressed the issues that needed to be addressed. That's all they needed to say.

          What the court added to this, however, was completely uncalled for. The court said that the particular publication was not copyrightable simply because it was a FAQ. So are you saying that by naming it a FAQ, the author waives all right to copyrighting the document? So the author could just change the name of the document to "Frequently-given-answers" -- would that be sufficient to now be able to copyright the work? Even if so, this would be counterproductive, since people can no longer used the word FAQ as a keyword for searching.

          FAQ is simply a convention for naming a type of document with a standardized format. This convention should not be an implicit waiving of copyright priviliges. It's the content that is valuable here, not the format.

        • FAQ documents should not be copyrighted.

          Yes, they should. The answers (The really important part of a FAQ) are the work of the author(s) - usually listed.

          The odd part of the ruling, to me, was that it only applied to business.

          MIKE
      • The article says that, but further reading of the material later in the article contradicts it.
        • Nope. After re-reading the article, I can safely say that nothing later in the article contradicts that statement, although nothing else in the article supports it.

          So that essentially leaves me wondering what justifies this completely outrageous decision. As you point out, the article unfortunately does not elaborate further on this. It does not, however, contradict the statement.

          • Ultimately, Mist-On agreed that it could not copyright the idea of a FAQ page. However, Mist-On argued that because the Gilley's FAQ page was so similar to the Mist-On FAQ page that there must be some copyright infringement.
            The court swatted away this argument by noting the differences between the two Web pages

            In other words:

            • Court rules that you cannot copyright the idea.
            • Plaintif accepts decision
            • Plaintif claims copying of content
            • Court rules that no such copying occured
            The courts decision is very clear: You cannot copyright the idea of a FAQ,and further, that the nature of FAQs is such that similarities are to be expected, and the mere exitence of similarities does not automatically imply copying has occured.

            the court held that "these superficial similarities fall short of proving copying"

      • It didn't mean, "In addition to being unable to copyright the format and subject matter and types of questions asked in a FAQ, one also cannot copyright the rest of the contents of a FAQ either." It meant, "In addition to the FAQ formats being dissimilar enough in this case that copying cannot be proven, it is also the case that the very type of suit put forth by the plantiff, where it was alleged that a FAQ with similar questions and a similar format is a copyright violation, can't even be done in the first place, even if the formats really were similar." That's what the "step further" was about - in addition to the claim being unproven in this case, even if it was proven it wouldn't be enough in any case to show that the other party has a FAQ with similar questions and format.

  • According to the report, most of the reason for the decision was to do with the fact that there wasn't evidence of wholesale copying. There's only one paragraph in the report suggesting that FAQs in general can't be copyrighted, and my gut instinct says that something couldn't *not* be copyrighted merely because it's a FAQ. It would be the context and content of the FAQ that would determine whether it could be copyrighted.
    • In most cases, especially when dealing with computers and end users average computer ability, how do you write a FAQ that can't be claimed as being copied verbatim and/or vice versa? I mean, there are so few ways to a frequently asked question. Such as:

      Q: I recieve a Non System Disk error everytime I boot my machine?
      A: Remove Floppy from Drive A: and press any key to continue.

      disclaimer: I know there are other causes of this error, this is the most common and is only given to serve as an example. Therefore, don't go on a tagent trying to elaborate. =)

      So with that given, how can you write that differently than the 1,000's of other sites who carry the same question in their respective FAQ's?

      Which leaves me with the notion that a lot of today's companies are run by would-be, or even failed, Lawyers. I mean, look at all the time they like spending in courtrooms bickering over lawsuits.
    • I imagine that the uniqueness of content would be an issue, given the generic nature of the products involved (spray on sun tan lotion). On other hand, an FAQ on a unique situation could be very differnt depending on the author.

      a FAQ on someone like Bill Gates, or Bill Clinton, or GWB, etc would vary greatly depending on the viewpoint of the author. With points for style, this would certainly make it copyrightable.

  • I'm unable to see the economic advantage for Mist-On to ban the other party's FAQ. I'm unable to understand why this went to court and wasted tax-dollars.

    But I'm happily able to smile that they got bashed. I wonder how long it'll take until you can copyright your everyday phrases or your dinner-prayer.... sad

  • Article (Score:4, Informative)

    by martyn s (444964) on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @04:40AM (#3564272)
    For some reason this site won't let you read the article if you don't accept cookies.

    "For every frequently asked question (FAQ) there is an answer. And with respect to the question whether FAQs posted on Web sites are deserving of copyright protection, Judge Barbara B. Crabb, of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, in the case Mist-On Systems, Inc. v. Gilley's European Tan Spa, on May 2 answered "no." Thus, it appears that lawsuits designed to snuff out the competition by seeking to attack Web content such as FAQs may fail, and if anything, may embolden competitors.

    THE ALLEGATIONS

    Plaintiff Mist-On Systems alleged that defendant Gilley's European Tan Spa infringed on its exclusive rights under the Copyright Act by preparing and displaying on its Web page a page that mirrored the FAQ page on Mist-On's Web site. Mist-On sought monetary and injunctive relief from Gilley's based on the "irreparable harm" it had suffered.

    THE COMPETING WEB SITES

    Mist-On's Web page, entitled "Mist-On Tanning Frequently Asked Questions," consisted of a single page of 19 questions about the Mist-On Tanning process and provided other related hints.

    Gilley's Web page, entitled Gilley's European Tan Spa "FAQ's Sunless Express Spray Spa," comprised three pages of operating instructions and 16 questions about the Sunless Express Spray Spa.

    According to the court, "when the two works are compared side-by-side, similarities are evident." That is because "both web pages utilize the Frequently Asked Questions format," "both web pages use common words to begin each question, such as 'how,' 'can,' 'is,' 'what,' and 'will,'" and because "both web pages focus on a spray-on form of sunless tanning" and "provide similar information."

    THE COURT'S RULING

    Notwithstanding the foregoing similarities, the court held that "these superficial similarities fall short of proving copying" because they are not the equivalent of copying constituent elements of the work that are original. According to the court and prior case law, regardless of the "original authorship" contained in a work, "the facts and ideas it exposes are free for the taking."

    Taking it a step further, the court held that "a business cannot copyright a Frequently Asked Questions page" or the words or phrases that comprise such a page because "the format of a Frequently Asked Questions page is a common idea in our society." Indeed, "the elements of a Frequently Asked Questions page (a list of questions beginning with common words) are stereotypical."

    Ultimately, Mist-On agreed that it could not copyright the idea of a FAQ page. However, Mist-On argued that because the Gilley's FAQ page was so similar to the Mist-On FAQ page that there must be some copyright infringement.

    The court swatted away this argument by noting the differences between the two Web pages, such as the fact that "the sequence, the wording and the number of the questions are different from each other," "five of defendants' questions are entirely unique to their page," "seven of plaintiff's questions are entirely unique to its page," and "the layout of the web page[s] is different." Moreover, "there is no truth to plaintiff's assertion that many of defendants' questions and answers are 'nearly identical' to plaintiff's."

    Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment without the need for a trial in favor of defendant Gilley's.

    LESSONS LEARNED

    Care must be taken in taking legal steps to deal with business competition. Plainly, this particular lawsuit did not help Mist-On in its efforts to deal with competitor Gilley's. Moreover, bad facts can make bad law. Here, the decision to assert copyright infringement for Internet content such as an FAQ page might not have been wise, especially when there truly are distinctions between the Web pages at issue."

  • Well, the questions are frequently asked, so no-one really has claim of copyright on the question. The answers should be available for copyrighting, though.

    Really all the judge found was that the defendant was not guilty of plagiarism (however, /me != lawyer).

    I'd love to hear their argument on how it caused them "irreparable harm". Ha!
    • Actually, no, that is not what the judge found. They defendant may well be guilty of intellectual plagiarism, in the sense of "copying someone else's ideas and information without proper credit." However, plagiarism in that sense is not illegal; it is merely an ethical violation (which is why, e.g., Doris Kearns Goodwin isn't being sued by the writers she forgot to cite in one of her books). Plagiarism can even be the result of a mistake (see DKG again; it's clear that her plagiarism wasn't intentional). The copyright law only applies to the form of the expression, and on this count the judge found the plaintiff's claims wanting.
  • by Seth Finkelstein (90154) on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @04:42AM (#3564278) Homepage Journal
    It's the idea of the FAQ which was at issue. A particular FAQ might be copyrightable. But the specific FAQ was not a copyright infringement.

    Per the article [law.com]:
    (and this is a better link too!)

    Ultimately, Mist-On agreed that it could not copyright the idea of a FAQ page. However, Mist-On argued that because the Gilley's FAQ page was so similar to the Mist-On FAQ page that there must be some copyright infringement.

    The court swatted away this argument by noting the differences between the two Web pages, such as the fact that "the sequence, the wording and the number of the questions are different from each other," "five of defendants' questions are entirely unique to their page," "seven of plaintiff's questions are entirely unique to its page," and "the layout of the web page[s] is different." Moreover, "there is no truth to plaintiff's assertion that many of defendants' questions and answers are 'nearly identical' to plaintiff's."

    Sig: What Happened To The Censorware Project (censorware.org) [sethf.com]

    • It's the idea of the FAQ which was at issue.

      I don't think this was ever seriously at issue, since in legal terms everyone agrees that ideas cannot be copyrighted. Only actual copy can; i.e. something written down. Now, the idea of a FAQ could probably be patented, but that would probably be a very different case.

      Heh... Imagine owning a patent on FAQs, RTFMs, RFCs. If you tried to collect you'd be able to piss off the entire Internet in one fell swoop! Unisys, are you guys game?

    • "Moreover, 'there is no truth to plaintiff's assertion that many of defendants' questions and answers are "nearly identical" to plaintiff's.'"

      This does, however, fly in the face of the modernist educational idea that there really is no absolute correct answer to any question. Obviously, if two FAQ writers come up with similar answers to similar questions, there must be some common determinable reality behind the answers to the questions.
  • A FAQ as a collection of questions and answers is copyrightable as any other "collection". This is not the case. Read the article and you will see that the case is about duplicating (and not even all of it) the ideas. It is the equivalent of the contents of the messages stored on /. servers (the collection of messages) versus offering another web site with similar format.
  • by RyanFenton (230700)

    Care to release information about the weaknesses of an insecure networking scheme a company refuses to address, details on how your favorite video game console functions, or the inner workings of a local cult? Make it into a FAQ!

    ;^)

    Ryan Fenton

    P.S. Yes, I realize this ain't the way it would really be accepted legally - but one can dream.
  • by henben (578800)
    >Are FAQs copywritable? Sure they are. Just use the "cp" command or try dragging the icon into another folder. If you still have trouble, you need to check your file permissions. Oh, "copyrightable."
  • by Saib0t (204692)
    A FAQ is a series of questions and answers, a sort of dialogue someone created that other read in which they find answers to their questions. It may be that the questions were submitted by someone, then again it may not. And even then, maybe the person who wrote the FAQ reformulated the questions.

    In any case, a FAQ is something someone has written, and all forms of creation are (well, should be) subject to copyright.

    But the case dealt with is this:

    Plaintiff Mist-On Systems alleged that defendant Gilley's European Tan Spa infringed on its exclusive rights under the Copyright Act by preparing and displaying on its Web page a page that mirrored the FAQ page on Mist-On's Web site. Mist-On sought monetary and injunctive relief from Gilley's based on the "irreparable harm" it had suffered.
    (read more to find out)

    This decision does not say that FAQs are not subject to copyright though, but that there was no copyright infringement:

    According to the court, "when the two works are compared side-by-side, similarities are evident." That is because "both web pages utilize the Frequently Asked Questions format," "both web pages use common words to begin each question, such as 'how,' 'can,' 'is,' 'what,' and 'will,'" and because "both web pages focus on a spray-on form of sunless tanning" and "provide similar information."

    So the title of the article is misleading, the court just ruled that there was no copyright infringement because the 2 FAQs were different...

    Let's move on... But I think the editors should have taken the time to read the article

  • "didn't think so" (Score:4, Insightful)

    by happyclam (564118) on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @04:49AM (#3564298)

    Even though others have clarified the ruling, I think it's worth noting (again?) that the judge did NOT think FAQs were not "copyrightable." In fact, the copy right of any work is automatically bestowed upon the author, but there is a formal procedure as well for registering a copyright.

    The judge ruled that there was no copyright infringement. This ruling does not, in any way, imply that FAQs do not deserve copyright protection. It does, however, set the bar reasonably high for proving copyright infringement for a FAQ-style document.

    This is a Good Thing. FAQs on vendors'/retailers sites will often have similar information. Think of the thousands of companies that install windows, or who sell nutritional products or cleaning products or pretty much anything manufactured by someone else. Two competitors could reasonably come up with very similar FAQs about that product category and its use, completely independent of each other.

    The good news here is that the Court ruled in a reasonable manner, which we might hope will continue when the CBDTPA hits it in a few years...

    someone stole my sig!
    • there is a formal procedure as well for registering a copyright.

      In the UK this is just writing "copyright " on the item.

      What is the formal procedure in the US?

      TWW

      • Re:"didn't think so" (Score:3, Informative)

        by rde (17364)
        There's no formal procedure - in the UK or the US. If you write it, it's yours.
        If you so desire, you can register it with a copyright agency (such as this one [copyrightservice.co.uk] in the UK), but that's only to establish precedence in case someone claims to have written your stuff before you did. Of course, if you're that paranoid, sending a copy to yourself by registered mail and not opening it is just as safe - and probably a lot cheaper.
        • IANAL, but in the US you cannot sue to recover court costs or punative damages unless you formally register your copyright with the Library or Congress.

          Mailing a copy to yourself is only (somewhat) usefull in proving whose claim is older. In every real way formally registering is the better way to go.
        • Of course, if you're that paranoid, sending a copy to yourself by registered mail and not opening it is just as safe - and probably a lot cheaper.

          This very well may be true in the UK - but for people in the US, this is bad advice. The court will smile and nod and then throw your 'evidence' out. The reason? It's quite easy to mail a stash of unsealed envelopes to yourself and fill them with letters as the need arises.

          • You don't have registered mail in the US? I imagine you've got some manner of equivalent thingy whereby mail can be guaranteed intact and untampered on delivery. Doesn't really matter what it's called. Or do you guys all just really trust one another?
            • Of course we have registerd mail in the US. It's just that the post office won't guarantee that the letter is intact and unmolested - after is has left their hands and left their controll.

              Having a document notorised and left under the care of an attouney may be some protection - but for copyright, here in the US, if you want the protection that registering affords - you simply have to register it. It's not that expensive at all, so comming up with clever schemes is dubious legaly and in balance, expensive. Of course, the UK may be diferent and the courts there will allow mailing stuff to yourself has proof - but here in the US, it's considered a rather entertaining fiction to think that a plantif has no motivation to doctor his own evidence, and will under no cercumstances, open a letter and reseal it.

              Just a cultural diference, I suppose. Kind of interesting really.

              PS: All spelling mistakes in the previous post are not due to my lazyness, I'm just foloowing my American roots to be creative ;)

        • This is generally not considered sound any more, even in the UK. Most courts consider this sort of evidence rather dodgy. The best thing to do (in the UK at least) is probably to have a lawyer or commisioner for oaths sign a dated statement saying that they've seen the copyrighted material, attach it to a copy, and have a bank keep it in a vault for you. It'll cost more, but might be worth it in the end...
      • Re:"didn't think so" (Score:4, Informative)

        by texchanchan (471739) <ccrowley@gmaiREDHATl.com minus distro> on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @07:40AM (#3564524)
        From a non-lawyer. As I understand it, your work is copyrighted
        - Informally by having been written. Automatic copyright.
        - Informally, but legally, by putting Copyright (c) year by name.
        - Formally by sending $34 and a copy of the work to the Library of Congress copyright department.
        • Re:"didn't think so" (Score:4, Informative)

          by Gleef (86) on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @08:15AM (#3564580) Homepage
          Yes, you get copyright whether you formally register it or not. There are two advantages to formally registering it (at least in the US):
          • You get paperwork regarding when the document was written that makes excellent evidence if a lawsuit arises regarding your copyright.
          • You are entitled to sue for more in damages if your copyright is threatened.
          Basically, if you care enough about your work that you would be willing to defend your copyright in court, you should consider registering it. If you are formally publishing the work, you definately should consider registering it.

          I am also not a lawyer, the above should not be interpreted as legal advice.
      • Here are the exact words from the FAQ [copyright.gov] of the Library of Congress [loc.gov]:

        How do I register my copyright?
        To register a work, you need to submit a completed application form, a non-refundable filing fee of $30, and a non-returnable copy or copies of the work to be registered. See Circular 1, section Registration Procedures [loc.gov].

        ...and...

        HOW TO SECURE A COPYRIGHT
        Copyright Secured Automatically upon Creation
        The way in which copyright protection is secured is frequently misunderstood. No publication or registration or other action in the Copyright Office is required to secure copyright. (See following Note.) There are, however, certain definite advantages to registration. See "Copyright Registration."

        Copyright is secured automatically when the work is created, and a work is "created" when it is fixed in a copy or phonorecord for the first time. "Copies" are material objects from which a work can be read or visually perceived either directly or with the aid of a machine or device, such as books, manuscripts, sheet music, film, videotape, or microfilm. "Phonorecords" are material objects embodying fixations of sounds (excluding, by statutory definition, motion picture soundtracks), such as cassette tapes, CDs, or LPs. Thus, for example, a song (the "work") can be fixed in sheet music (" copies") or in phonograph disks (" phonorecords"), or both.

        If a work is prepared over a period of time, the part of the work that is fixed on a particular date constitutes the created work as of that date.

        and later...

        COPYRIGHT REGISTRATION
        In general, copyright registration is a legal formality intended to make a public record of the basic facts of a particular copyright. However, registration is not a condition of copyright protection. Even though registration is not a requirement for protection, the copyright law provides several inducements or advantages to encourage copyright owners to make registration. Among these advantages are the following:
        • Registration establishes a public record of the copyright claim.
        • Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of U. S. origin.
        • If made before or within 5 years of publication, registration will establish prima facie evidence in court of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated in the certificate.
        • If registration is made within 3 months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney's fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.
        • Registration allows the owner of the copyright to record the registration with the U. S. Customs Service for protection against the importation of infringing copies. For additional information, request Publication No. 563 "How to Protect Your Intellectual Property Right," from: U.S. Customs Service, P.O. Box 7404, Washington, D.C. 20044. See the U.S. Customs Service Website at www.customs.gov for online publications.
        Registration may be made at any time within the life of the copyright. Unlike the law before 1978, when a work has been registered in unpublished form, it is not necessary to make another registration when the work becomes published, although the copyright owner may register the published edition, if desired.
  • FAQs are commonplace - they've been around for at least a decade, and it'd be pretty damn hard to get a copyright for the idea of something that has probably been around since before you got plugged into the Internet.

    Much better to write an OAQ (Often Asked Questions) document, since nobody's done that before. Then you can get your lousy copyright.
    • You are talking about patents, not copyright. Copyright just means 'I wrote this, so do not republish without permission'.
    • If some person had a patent on FAQs, then noone else could make their own FAQs. But the idea of a FAQ is not patented (as far as I know) and can not be copyrighted. However, a specific FAQ can be copyrighted, but that doesn't stop anyone else from making their own, just that they can not copy others.
  • Good (Score:2, Insightful)

    by bythescruff (522831)

    According to the court and prior case law, regardless of the "original authorship" contained in a work, "the facts and ideas it exposes are free for the taking."

    FAQ's benefit everyone. They're collections of information, often resulting from many users' experiences over time, and they can be an extremely valuable resource. Although the chap who gathers the information together and presents it might well feel a bit miffed if you copied his FAQ and its style exactly without his permission, trying to prevent someone from distributing a FAQ helps no one.

    As has been mentioned once or twice on Slashdot, copyright protection is supposed to benefit the public, not particular individuals.

  • by Florian Weimer (88405) <fw@deneb.enyo.de> on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @05:11AM (#3564326) Homepage
    The submitter of the story obviously linked to the wrong article.

    The court says that the idea of an FAQ is not copyrightable (good thing), that a list of common questions relating to a certain subject is not copyrightable (good thing), and that in this particular case, the answers where so different that they weren't infringing (we haven't got the lists for side-by-side comparison, so this remains unclear, but there sin't something fishy about it in itself).

    To me, it seems that the court made a reasonable decision. In particular, it did not rule that FAQs (which usually include the answers) are never protected by copyright.
  • patents (Score:3, Funny)

    by phunhippy (86447) <zavoid@NosPam.gmail.com> on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @05:14AM (#3564334) Journal
    Great! So how long before we discover FAQ's format have actually been granted a Patent by the USPO to some lucky individual out there ;)

    • So how long before we discover FAQ's format have actually been granted a Patent by the USPO

      The setting: Deep legal waters within US territorial boundries.
      The place: Aboard one of the newest vessels in the USPO navy - the FAQ.

      The FAQ cruises silently, deep beneath the ocean surface.

      Sonar alert! "Captain! We have a multiple contacts bearing 040 degrees! Range - 2500 yards and closing!" The captain calls for periscope depth. The crew responds swiftly. "Periscope depth Sir!" The captain barks "Up periscope!". He scans the horizon. He holds his breath. Can it be? YES! "Commercial FAQ sighted! No - wait..." He pauses a moment... "Men, this is our lucky day. We have found our target, and not merely one, but TWO commercial FAQs already engaged in hostilities! LOAD TORPEDOS! SURFACE! SURFACE!"

      The crew scambles! Everyone exept the sonar officer who is strangely intent on his readings. He hesitates, uncertain... Suddenly he shouts "Captain! THIRD sonar contact! And, MY GOD! Its HUGE!"

      The captian jumps back to the periscope. He scans left ... right ... he gasps! It's a Judicial destroyer - the USS Reasonable Judge! He shouts in a panic "DIVE! DIVE! DIVE!"

      The crew hears the panic in his voice and is visibly unsetteled by it. The captian realizes his error - "I'm the captian" he thinks... "It's my responsibility to keep the crew calm". He takes a deep dreath and recites the submariner's motto: "Run silent. Run deep." The crew appears visibly calmed as they echo the captain - "Run silent. Run deep."

      The USPO submarine FAQ returns to the ocean depths and lives to hunt another day.

      -
    • Not unreasonable, and it would still be in force, given that FAQs originated on Usenet about 15 years ago. But I'm pretty sure the originator has in the past specifically proclaimed public domain. I just don't remember the details. And it could be possible that the organizing principle came from his earlier experience.

      --Blair
  • by SmittyTheBold (14066) <[deth_bunny] [at] [yahoo.com]> on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @05:20AM (#3564347) Homepage Journal
    You know, the /. crowd houses an alarming number of alarmists. I mean, it's good and all that people are ever-vigilant, yadda yadda, but areound here alert is raised just to be called off fully half the time.

    If the editors edited instead of simply relaying common memes, maybe this problem would go away. At least a little bit.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @05:22AM (#3564353)
    ... when the courts made a reasonable and fair judgement. Next people will be saying that M$ is not always wrong... [slashdot.org]
  • Perhaps we can find the answer to that one in the Copywriting FAQ [wordsleuth.com]?
  • I don't think I've every worked for a company that puts up real FAQ's, there all made up. ok so after a few months prohaps a couple of propper FAQ's appear but things like,
    'How can I best leverage Microsofts licensing scheme to send my soul to heven' etc... shouldn't make the FAQ list.
  • Well this thing makes me sick. I think I should get the phrase "The internet" copyrighted before someone else does. Hey stupider things have happened.
  • by CMU_Nort (73700) on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @06:26AM (#3564420) Homepage

    I don't know what the hell Mist-On was thinking except for trying to eliminate competition. These FAQ's are hardly anything alike.

    http://www.mist-on.com/faq.htm [mist-on.com]

    http://www.gilleystanspa.com/content/sunless.htm#s prayspa [gilleystanspa.com]

    • This was an absurd lawsuit. I hope the plaintiffs have to pay for the D's attourney fees.

      -The idea and Q&A format of an FAQ is not copyrightable (not original, idea, etc...)
      -It is unlikely that any particular question statement of a "Frequently Asked Question" is original to the authors of the FAQ anyway
      -The idea and facts embodied in an answer are also not copyrightable

      On the other hand, some elements of a particular FAQ probably are copyrightable:
      - The exact choice and order of the questions might be copyrightable in some cases if it truly was the result of some creative selection process by the author. On the other hand, if it is just a record of the order of questions asked by others in a particular forum, it wouldn't qualify. Here, the select and order of questions vary between the two FAQ's, so this isn't an issue.
      - The exact expression of the answers, especially when treated as a group. This is clearly original work of the author(s) of the FAQ. Here, the exact expression was not copied, so this isn't an issue.
  • by LL (20038) on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @06:45AM (#3564455)
    ... is that you cannot protect an extrinsic convention (in this case a Question/Answer format). This is in contrast with other interpretations such as databases where the facts may be public (e.g. sports scores) but they've ruled that schemas and intrinsic data structures can be protected. This is a ruling that follows common sense as the parties indepedently constructed their FAQs and it would be unconciousable to extinguish one or the other.

    FAQs are a common industry custom, and much like man-pages follow a certain format, is based on expectations of that that information is intended to achieve. After all, similar intentions for a well-defined domain usually result in similar solutions. In this case attempting to use one legal concept (exclusive right to duplicate original copy) to achieve anti-competitive outcomes was rejected. There res decidendi (or question in conflict) was not relevant to copyright.

    I hope some of the principles from this case can be moved over to the software patent domain. The reversal of historical application of patents as defensive shield towards modern offensive tactics (business process patent), is creating outcomes contrary to the original intent. When companies prepared to use new technology are esstoped from deployment by pure IP hurdles (cough*RamBus*cough) or other nuisance patents (cough*oneClick*cough), then perhaps it is worthwhile reconsidering redefining the bar to innovation.

    Perhaps OpenSource could then be described as a defensive legal tactic ... if it appears in an open forum then perhaps that establishes prior art which cannot be claimed as proprietary technology.

    LL
    • Data structures may be protectable. This does not go in the face of that.

      You could try to copyright a data structure that uses a question/answer format... but the thing is, how can you provie I copied yours? Many many other poeple came up with the same format independently.

      REmember, if you come up with an exact replica of a copyrighted work independently, it's not infringement (as with clean-room reverse engineering techniques for software. Even if the resulting code is identical to the original, it's not infringement, becuase it was not copied)

      I find it interesting that so many people manage to tie any topic back to open source somehow. The only other groups I can see who do this sort of thing are a) politicos, who try to show how any disucssion is right wing/left wing / liberal/ conservative/ etc. and
      b) religious freaks, who try to show how everything has to do with Jesus or Satan.
  • The _content_ of FAQs are as copyrightable as anything else.

    The question "Can an FAQ be copyrightable?" is just completely meaningless and wrong.

    It's like asking "Can I transfer my car from my home to the mall over HTTP?"
  • Sweat of the brow (Score:4, Informative)

    by BreakWindows (442819) on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @07:23AM (#3564501) Homepage
    This seems like it would fall under Feist v Rural Telephone Company, the "facts and 'sweat of the brow' cannot be copyrighted" ruling. In that, they found a phonebook was not copyrightable, as the information was not original and publically available. A FAQ is similar; "writing" one consists of copy and paste, and by that ruling can't be considered an original work.

    http://www.bitlaw.com/source/cases/copyright/feist . tml [bitlaw.com]
    • If you read the article, you'd see this isn't the case. They didn't find that a FAQ is not copyrightable. They found that the idea of a FAQ is not copyrightable.

      A FAQ is similar; "writing" one consists of copy and paste, and by that ruling can't be considered an original work.

      I guess some Usenet FAQs work this way, where answers consist of someone else's post, but most FAQs on corporate sites have questions and answers that are carefully written and original. I know--I've written a few.
  • Judge for yourself (Score:3, Informative)

    by stain ain (151381) on Wednesday May 22, 2002 @07:24AM (#3564503)
    Link to Mist-on's FAQ on google cache [google.com].
    And find here the alleged copy, Gilley's FAQ on google [google.com].

    What do you think? To me, the only thing they have in common is the question marks, and that's not copyright infrigement.
  • by dilute (74234)
    The IDEA of ANYTHING can NEVER be copyrighted. Nor can this one. So what.
  • Somebody tried to sue a competitor for copyright infringement and lost. The court ruled that the material was sufficiently different that there was no infringement. Zzzzzzzz.

    Coming up next: Boy Falls in Lake, Climbs Out Wet.
  • If the content of the FAQ is not soomething like "What causes a sunburn?"

    From the article: "...the facts and ideas it exposes are free for the taking."

    So if you right a FAQ about something general like 10 FAQ's about tanning, then of course the content isn't copyright protected, unless of course, you have unique information about some factor of tanning.

    That's not to say that if your FAQ's are about a specific application or process that you've developed (which a lot of FAQ's are built to answer) that your FAQ would not be copyright protected.

    The headline Are FAQs copywritable? is totally dependant upon the content of the FAQ, not the fact that it is an FAQ.
    • "So if you right a FAQ about something general like 10 FAQ's about tanning, then of course the content isn't copyright protected, unless of course, you have unique information about some factor of tanning."

      Not true. General/unique, it doesn't matter what the content is. Anything that isn't an exact copy of a previous combination of words and layout is copyright protected. Even if there are no new ideas

  • Ok, so if you want to ignore the copyrigt on something just use my litte script:
    cat > nocopy.sed
    1i\
    FAQ:
    And then cat whatever | sed -f nocopy.sed
    © pellemell [pellemell.nu] 2002 All rights reserved ;-)
  • Would it have killed the guy to give a proper cite? I can't seem to find the actual case to read what it said.
  • Jeebus, it's "copyright".

    Seriously, a copywriter [dictionary.com] and a copyrighter [dictionary.com] have two completely different jobs.

    Can you write copy for a FAQ? I suppose. Can you copyright a FAQ? I haven't the foggiest.

    Bitch and moan all you want, this isn't little grammar issue I'm pointing out. A misused word, in this case, completely changes the meaning of the question.

    At least the editors got this one right in the title.

  • I think that the real cause for alarm in all this is that there are people out there that *NEED* a frequently-asked questions list for a tanning spray.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      I see. So you instinctivly knew what chemicals it uses to work, whether or not it will colour your hair, how long it lasts, how long you should wait before showering, whether or not it smells, whether or not it will leave streaks, etc?

      Wow, sure are smart.
    • What alarms me is that there are people who need a tanning spray. Of course, I'm assuming a tanning spray is stuff you spray on your body to get a tan, as opposed to stuff you use for tanning animal skins... Hmm maybe I should read the FAQ....
  • If I send you a FAQ, and you decide to include it, how can you copywrite it? Wouldn't that be taking away some of my (or whoever asks the faq) inellectual property? As a country we are taking more and more rights from companies, and giving them to big companies with tons of lawyers. Maybe we need to have a law against more than 5 lawyers per company :-) (it would break up M$ pretty quick ;-)

    I like Slashdot's policy of "Copywrite 2002, comments are property of their posters"
  • I dont see why not. It is a work generated by an indivdual or company.

    even if a survey or data gathering process is used to find the FAQs. Plenty of other companys have copyrights on there graphs and data which was gathered via survey or stats.

    Its just why to would one want to copyright FAQs?
  • This [mist-on.com] is their stupid FAQ. Here [mist-on.com] is where they really shine. It looks to me that mist on is a pretty sue-happy company. You will also find references to patents and lawsuits on the humor and press pages. Ironically, I've seen the map they use on their locations page somewhere else.
  • They said you can't copyright the IDEA of an FAQ.

    The Judge decided that the 2 faq's in question were NOT copies, that they were only similar (both being faqs on the same obscure subject)

    You most certainly CAN exert copyright if someone copies your work verbatim, whether it's an faq or not.
  • Boy, what's wrong with you guys sometimes? Yes, the court found differences between the pages... but the court extended its argument unnecessarily in this paragraph:


    Taking it a step further, the court held that "a business cannot copyright a Frequently Asked Questions page" or the words or phrases that comprise such a page because "the format of a Frequently Asked Questions page is a common idea in our society." Indeed, "the elements of a Frequently Asked Questions page (a list of questions beginning with common words) are stereotypical."

  • procedures and facts (Score:2, Informative)

    by octalgirl (580949)
    From http://www.lapl.org/central/guides/copyrights.html , What cannot be copyrighted? "Titles, names, slogans and phrases cannot be copyrighted. Other items that cannot be protected by copyrights are: ideas, methods, procedures and common knowledge such as a calendar. If the work has not been fixed in a tangible form, it cannot be copyrighted." Emphasis on 'methods, procedures and common knowledge'. The key words in a FAQ are 'frequently asked', by humans, to humans. FAQs tell us how to do something, provide a method for understanding, or give us specific procedures. The same questions are going to have the same answers, even if written slightly different, and thus should not be copyrightable. Here an interpretation from http://questy.com/tech/inet6.htm "A fact cannot be copyrighted. A list of facts cannot be copyrighted. However, when I write a document that lists the facts, but also includes my opinions or add original content in addition to the facts, I can copyright that document." Imagine being able to copyright that a corn seed should be planted at 2inches then watered. Now if I were to write 'Unique Questions that Only I have the Answer To', maybe I could do something with that.
  • The generalization cannot be protected for the obvious reasons stated in the article, but the copyright can be supported if there is a far more obvious word for word copying.

    For instance, if an ISP has a one article in a FAQ like:
    What are "WinModems" and/or software dependent modems?
    These are modems that leave some or most of the work needed in modulating or demodulating (translating and talking to the Internet) to the processor rather than completing all the work themselves. For various reasons, we do not recommend these modems...

    Now, if some other ISP were to use it word for word, they would be violating copyright, but if they had the following (or any variation) it would be very difficult to claim it against the copyright:
    What are Win and software modems?
    Modems that leave much of the work of talking to the Internet (MODulating and DEModulating) to your processor rather than completing the function themselves are often referred to as WinModems (a category of software modems). For various reasons, we recommend using a real or hardware modem...

    The similarities may appear blindingly but remember the conditions, same subject, same type of company. And remember, there's a reasion they're called Frequently Asked Questions.

    In general, just about anything is able to have a copyright attached to it. There are conditions that will collapse a copyright if challenged in court however, like a commonly used phrase, insufficient to make something unique or a pre-existing work. Take twenty bucks to the copyright office and copyright your name, even John Smith will get through, but if you challenge someone or they challenge you, then it may be abolished (and you don't get your gas money back). This is what makes copyrights different from trademarks and patents; trademarks and patents have to be researched first, and naturally, cost more money.

    <insert one-click patent jokes here>

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