Borrowing From Blogs And Other Online Sources

heidelnight.jpgWhat follows is a guide aimed particularly at church webmasters and others who are just beginning to create blogs and websites. I get questions about this from time to time and I occasionally see things that suggest the need for this post.

Most of us have a general knowledge of copyright law, custom, and practice when it comes to printed material. Some may not know, however, that the same sorts of rules apply to borrowing material from websites (e.g., and blogs (e.g., the Heidelblog, where you are now). They do. You might not have seen it (people get to the HB from a variety of sources) but there is a copyright claim at the bottom of every page on the HB. This means that I am claiming ownership of all the original material (not the material I’m quoting or borrowing) that appears on the HB. Thus, just as one would not photocopy a book that is still under copyright, one may not copy entire posts. Now, under fair use, one may copy a chapter of a book. Is an individual post equivalent to the chapter of a book? It does not seem so.

The general custom, as I understand it (and I’m quite open to correction), is that one may borrow (copy and paste to another site) no more than 40% of a particular post and, in any event, the borrower should post a link back to the original site. If one quotes the first 40% of a post, as e.g., the Aquila Report does, that section is usually followed by something that says, “read more” with a link back to the original source. The folks at he Aquila Report kindly contacted me to make sure that I was comfortable with their regular use of material from the HB.

My goal is not to quench enthusiasm for what readers have found here (or elsewhere) nor is it to discourage readers from sharing what they’ve found here. Generally bloggers and online writers generally are happy to have others link back to their work. Link away! If readers want to borrow a bit (up to 40%), that’s fine but it’s not cricket to copy and paste entire posts without permission. I’m confident that in nearly every case, when this happens, it is done out of ignorance or haste (or both) and the purpose of re-posting is to expose a particular set of readers to something one finds helpful. For that reason, my goal is to be helpful rather than punitive. When I first started the HB, even before it was the the HB, I made a number of such mistakes and more experienced web users corrected me.

Thanks for reading the HB. I’m glad that it’s helpful (if indeed it is) and please feel free to quote from the HB and to borrow from it within the limits sketched above. Thanks to all those readers who link regularly to the HB, thereby helping others to find the resources here.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Dr. Clark, you’re basically correct, with some important qualifications.

    The formal state of internet copyright law is in flux — not so much for people who want to do the right thing but for people who want to “push the envelope” and do things that are on the edge of current laws. The recent “Righthaven” litigation in Nevada is only one example, and while that attempt to use copyright law to sue internet re-posters failed on technical grounds, much of what I write below, though it is accurate today, may not be accurate in a few years. All it would take would be one precedent-setting court case and much of existing copyright law could be radically changed.

    Rather than letting judges make major decisions on this, we probably need Congress to do a thorough review of copyright law as it applies to the internet. However, that is probably politically unfeasible, and I’m afraid we’re going to have our courts making decisions which should be political decisions based on public input, and then Congress will either affirm the court decision by doing nothing or respond to public pressure against the court decision by revising the law.

    Your “40 percent rule” is a good general principle, but it won’t necessarily hold up in court. Judges will be more concerned about whether the substance of the work has been improperly copied and whether that has harmed the copyright owner than whether a specific percentage has been reached. It is at least theoretically possible that if someone republishes the most important 5 percent of a work, that person will be found guilty of copyright infringement.

    The target audience of this post, however, is Christians who are copying things because they like them and want others to read what they like — not people who are trying to make a quick buck profiting off somebody else’s work, or who are going to sue at the drop of a hat. If you want to say “don’t copy more than 40 percent,” people should respect your wishes, rather than trying to require strict adherence to legal standards as a loophole around your publicly stated wishes.

    Furthermore, your 40 percent rule is probably a good general guideline for other people, not just for your writing.

    Perhaps more significant, however, is the “fair use” exemption from copyright law for review and critique.

    Judges have consistently ruled that copyright law cannot be used to prevent someone from exercising their First Amendment rights to criticize something, and are rather generous in accepting arguments from critics who say they need to be able to quote large portions of someone’s work to critique it and prove the quotes are in context.

    Does that mean somebody could republish one of your books in totality on the internet so long as it’s interspersed with comments and criticism? Almost certainly not — though there is a case back from the late 1930s where a publisher did that and got away with it because of the extreme nature of the situation.

    The bottom line is that copyright law exists to make sure you can get a fair profit from your exclusive “right to copy” what you write.

    On the one hand, that means the courts will punish people who harm your ability to earn money from what you write, especially by publishing what you write and charging money for it without paying you a licensing fee (the original intent of copyright infringement laws) but also by posting what you write on the internet so you can’t make money from your books or your website, or can’t make as much money as you would have made otherwise.

    On the other hand, the courts are much less likely to punish people who copy what you write if you can’t demonstrate economic harm, and are very unlikely to punish people who copy what you write to comment on it.

    Common sense goes a long way here.

    If you copy something in print, footnote it so people know where to look it up. If you copy something on the internet, hyperlink to it so people can click through to read it for themselves — and if the website being quoted relies on readers for paid advertising, the pageviews from the clickthrough end up helping the person whose work is being quoted, thus eliminating or reducing the “economic harm” argument.

    Again, however, the law is in flux. What I wrote is accurate today. It may not be down the road. If the Righthaven litigation had gone the other way, we would today be in a very different legal situation with internet copyrights.

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