Does using a thesaurus to replace words in a body of text get around US copyright laws? 6 Answers as of August 16, 2013

I have recently been reviewing a book that was intended to be published. At one point, I stumbled into a phrase that stated something to the effect of "this article will..." which I thought was a strange choice of words for a book. So I started Googling around and quickly found that vast sections of the book were ripped straight from the Internet. I brought this to the attention of the intended publisher who got the author to rewrite the chapter, and resubmit it to me. At first, I was relatively pleased that the copyright issues appeared to have been resolved, but I soon discovered that while text was no longer a word-for-word copy, the author had essentially used a thesaurus to replace some words with others, and restructured sentences slightly to prevent the text from being identical. However, it is still quite clear that the effect of the text is still identical. You can go through the text, one sentence at a time, and very clearly tell that it is still the same thing, just with minor tweaks to avoid a literal copy. This feels like it is still a copyright violation in spirit, and seems like it could not possibly be legal, but I'm struggling to find any actual evidence that this sort of small-scale copy and replace violates any laws. So my question is, is this in fact illegal, as I suspect, and if so, where would this be documented? (I've marked this as a part of the Patent category because I don't see anything closer to Copyright law than this.)

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Mark S. Hubert PC
Mark S. Hubert PC | Mark Hubert
Excellent question. Keep in mind each situation is determined in court based on the specific facts. Copyright protects the creators expression (individual albeit) of an idea, a dance, a collection of facts, photos etc You get it. However copyright also protects derivative works thereof. Since the expression of the idea is done thru the selection of specific words and ideas alone cant be protected there would be no literal or direct type infringement but possibly it would infringe as a derivative work.
Answer Applies to: Oregon
Replied: 8/16/2013
Eminent IP, P.C.
Eminent IP, P.C. | Paul C. Oestreich
The short answer is: "it depends." The test for prevailing in a copyright infringement lawsuit requires: (1) the plaintiff showing he or she owns a valid copyright, (2) the defendant actually having copied the work, and (3) the level of copying amounting to a misappropriation of the copyrights. The third prong of that test is often referred to as the "substantial similarity" test. The substantial similarity jurisprudence has evolved in the US case law because the exclusive right to make copies of a work would be meaningless if infringement was limited to making only exact and complete reproductions of a work. So, under the doctrine of substantial similarity, a work can be found to infringe a copyright even if the wording of text has been changed or visual or audible elements have been altered. So, under the facts you have provided, the "minor tweaks" may or may not be enough to avoid infringement. Make no mistake this is a gray area and it is very subjective. But, even if there is substantial similarity, there may be no harm if the work being copied is not subject to copyrights, *e.g.*, not an original work in the first place, being dedicated to the public, licensed for this particular use, or having exceeded copyright term, etc. You should consult an intellectual property attorney or copyright attorney to fully advise you based on your particular facts in view the most relevant and case law to determine if there is some liability. But, your instincts are good. This is the sort of activity that can result in a finding of copyright infringement.
Answer Applies to: Utah
Replied: 8/14/2013
Law Office of Kirk Buhler
Law Office of Kirk Buhler | Kirk A Buhler
If money is being made for the book then the violation exists. If they are giving it away then there Based upon your description this would seem to be a violation of copyright laws. A copyright is an "artistic expression". From your question, the artistic expression is still the same. Copying a sentence and changing one or more words in the sentence would have the same artistic expression, especially when a word is changed to another word with essentially the same meaning. The owner of the copyright has the right to sue for copyright infringement. Another example for copyright is drawing a figure that looks like a Disney (or other) character. Especially when the similar figure is drawn to give the appearance of the Disney character without it being exactly the same.
Answer Applies to: California
Replied: 8/14/2013
Sebby Law Office
Sebby Law Office | Jayne Sebby
Copyright protects the expression of a work rather than the underlying idea. Since the article was originally plagiarized word for word from other sources, it is unlikely that the writer could avoid copyright violation merely by using slightly different words and changing the sentence structure in a few places. If you can locate them, notify the original copyright owners and tell them what's happening. They will have a better chance then you of getting this book either squashed or entirely rewritten by another writer. I would also inform the publisher 1) that you will no longer review books for them since they don't have a clear understanding of and strong policy against copyright violations and 2) that you will inform anyone who asks why you now decline to review their publications.
Answer Applies to: Nebraska
Replied: 8/14/2013
Banner & Witcoff, Ltd. | Ernie Linek
This "version" would qualify as a "derivative work" under the U.S. Copyright Laws. Only the copyright owner has the right to make derivative works, unless the first work is in the public domain or the second author has a license from the first. See 17 USC 101 & 103.
Answer Applies to: Massachusetts
Replied: 8/14/2013
    Webb IP Law Group
    Webb IP Law Group | Jason P Webb
    I would not feel comfortable publishing if I were the publisher and I found out about that. I would not feel like the copyright issue was properly resolved.
    Answer Applies to: Utah
    Replied: 8/14/2013
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