Are Book Summaries covered by 'Fair Use'?

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  • I have recently found a book summary publisher who creates summaries of business books without notifying the books publishers and I am wondering if this is 'legal' (i.e. covered by 'Fair Use' policy in the copyright act?). Whilst they clearly mention the book title, author and publisher and use the book cover, I'm wondering if it is all above board. Would appreciate some feedback on this.
  • In my opinion, a summary is an original work. The ideas in the summary may be the same ideas that are in the book, but the way in which those ideas are presented should be different.

    However, there is a similar question that uses summary to mean something very different: Unreferenced Notes from an Instructor It appears to me that the work in question on this thread is a series of sentences copied verbatim from a book. I do not consider that a summary. I consider that a condensed version or perhaps an abridged (substantially) version or digest.

    However, I have seen or heard "summarize in your own words" many times, so perhaps my definition of summary is too limited.

    In any case, I think the answer to your question depends on what summary means in this particular case.


    Let's start with what I call a condensed version.

    Fair use must be determined on a case by case basis using the 4 factors, which I will simplify here.

    1. Character of Use. Commercial or Educational? It sounds like this is clearly commercial, but some publishers, like governments, are noncommercial. If this is a commercial publisher, this factor works against the summarizer.

    2. Nature of material. Creative or factual? I believe that previous fair use determinations by the courts indicate that fiction is creative and nonfiction is factual. Personally, I disagree; I distinguish between creative nonfiction (history, biography) and non-creative nonfiction (statistics, census records). I suspect that the books in question are mainly what I would consider creative nonfiction. However, as I recall, all previous fair use determinations dealt with fiction. In my opinion, most judges making fair use determinations will agree with my argument, if that argument is presented. While I cannot guarantee that this factor works against the summarizer, I suspect that it will if tested in court.

    3. How much? I think this factor clearly works against the summarizer. The basic idea of this kind of summary is that it contains all of the important parts with none of the filler. Regardless of what percentage is actually used, the implication is that the summary replaces the book.

    4. Effect on market value? As I understand it, the condensed version summarizer is competing with the original publisher. If that's the case, this factor clearly works against the summarizer.

    So, if the summarizer is actually creating what I call condensed versions and selling them, then the publisher is clearly violating copyright law. Keep in mind that only a judge can make a legally binding fair use determination.


    Now let's consider a summary that is largely or totally original.

    Ideas cannot be copyrighted. The expression of those ideas can be copyrighted. The summary is a different expression of the same ideas. The summary publisher is the copyright holder of the summary. No copyright violation has occured.


    I've seen a lot of business books with titles like "5 Characteristics of Successful Leaders" and "10 Secrets of Profitable Companies." I think it would be possible to argue that any work which contains the same 5 characteristics or 10 secrets, regardless of how those characteristics or secrets are worded, are identical expressions of the same idea.

    Was that clear?

    What I'm saying is that the following argument might be compelling to a judge. The 5 characteristics aren't 5 separate ideas. They are the single expression of 1 idea of what good leadership is. Any work on good leadership, whether it is a summary, a book, or a Broadway musical, that expresses good leadership in terms of the same 5 characteristics is an identical expression of the same idea even though the expression of each characteristic is different.


    So, to summarize (perhaps I shouldn't use that word):
    1. Book condensing is not fair use.
    2. Summarizing in your own words is not a copyright violation. Fair use doesn't apply.
    3. Summarizing a book about 10 secrets by creating a reworded list of the 10 secrets might be a copyright violation.
  • Thanks for the feedback. This is still a bit 'grey' to me because;

    1. They have condensed an entire book into 8 pages 'using their own words'
    2. They only occasionally use a quote verbatim from the author.
    3. There is clear reference and attribution to the original author and publisher, plus they are using the cover image of the original book.
    4. They do operate for commercial benefit and the effect on market value is offset by their claim that 'people read summaries to decide if they want to read the entire book'

    So given the above factors, my question is still is this legal? My primary concern is that they have approached our company looking for a strategic alliance and we don't want to align ourselves with a potential powderkeg of legal action if we can avoid it. So much grey, so little black and white...
  • So much grey, so little black and white...
    Absolutely true. No one can definitively answer your question unless the publisher is sued and a judge makes a determination. You will never know if this activity is actually legal until this happens. That's just the way the copyright law is. Everything must be determined on a case-by-case basis and neither you nor I have the legal authority to make a legally binding determination. 8 pages seems a little long to me. I don't think that the length of the summary has anything to do with the legality, but I do think that longer summaries give the perception of shadiness. Is that important? I don't know. Forming a partnership with an Italian 'businessman' might give someone the impression that you are allied with the Mafia, but if the Italian is really a legitimate businessman, do you care about the perception? I think it depends on the scenario. Are you familiar with CliffsNotes? This company claims to sell a product that helps students to understand what they have read. Their product can be used for that purpose. I think there are many students who would benefit from supplementing their reading with CliffsNotes, and I believe that some of those students actually do use CliffsNotes as supplements and do benefit. However, I think those students are a small percentage of the people who actually buy CliffsNotes. I believe the overwhelming majority of people who buy CliffsNotes do so as a replacement for rather than a supplement to the original works. I believe CliffsNotes knows this and has no problem with this, even though they will never admit to this in public. However, there is no doubt in my mind that what CliffsNotes does is legal, regardless of whether they seek permission from the copyright holders. The summaries provided in CliffsNotes are clearly original works, not plagiarized versions of the originals. Would I want to form a partnership with CliffsNotes? Not really. I don't fear any legal action, but I don't want to do business with a company that I believe is perceived as shady. It doesn't matter to me whether the company really is shady or not, as long as the perception exists. Of course it all depends on the actual scenario. If I work for Phillip Morris, I already have perception problems. However, I could donate multiple copies of 100 great books to public school libraries in the ghetto. I could supplement this donation with free tickets to a Shakespeare play, 1 copy of film versions and multiple copies of CliffsNotes to the tutoring center. Within this context, I wouuld have no problem partnering with CliffsNotes. Keep in mind that I have no stake in your company or your own personal reputation. Also, I am not a lawyer. Are the summaries legal? No one can say for certain until the summarizer is sued and a determination is made by a judge. Do I believe that the summaries are legal? Based on your first post, I don't have enough information. Based on your first and second post, I believe they are legal. Would I form a strategic alliance? I don't know. I don't have enough details to make that determination. Would I avoid a strategic alliance because I fear legal action? Lawsuits can be filed without merit. Any company that is percieved as shady is a lightning rod for legal action. However, a lightning rods doesn't attract lightning unless it is in a thunderstorm. I don't have enough details to assess the likelihood of legal action. Would I avoid a strategic alliance because I fear a legal decision against you or your partner? Personally, I believe that any legal action involving copyright in the scenario you have presented is without merit. In my opinion, you may have to go to court, but you will not lose. I hope this helps. This board doesn't get as much traffic as it should, but I hope that some of the other lurkers post because I think its good to hear different opinions.

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