Copyright issues with text rather than photos?

Hi all,

I’ve sometimes run into observers who cut and paste long swaths of text from the internet (sometimes from Wikipedia, but sometimes from other people’s personal nature websites/blogs) to go along with their observation. I think their intent is to educate other people about the critter in their observation, but without using quotes or attribution, this seems wrong to me, and possibly copyright infringement? I’ve sometimes left notes about this behavior in the comment section. Should this be flagged? Or should I just ignore it?



It is not permitted under site rules, as all content added to the site comes with a license attribution to the poster added. Even if it is creative commons or otherwise open licensed, users can not state they own the licensing rights to the content.


If the quote is followed by a reference, I think it allowable. I’ve done that a few times - ‘Bugguide says x’ and then used the URL as a reference. I don’t think it is right to use other’s words without an acknowledgement of where those words/thoughts came from.


Under normal circumstances, it is legally permitted, the challenge is the statement of licensing rights done on submissions. It is perfectly fine to post a link to their content as a reference, but cut and paste, even with attribution, at least as I understand it is not permitted.


Most legislation has “educational use” provisions that allow a portion of a work to be quoted, and I think to be prosecuted it would have to be shown that harm or loss was incurred. I don’t think that cut and paste specifically is any different from manually typing a copy, it is still a copy.

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Agreed, but the issue of applying a statement of licensing/ownership under the name of the observer remains the issue. No ‘fair use’ or other provision allows you to claim or redo the licensing rights of content, and under what license it is posted from the original owner.

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Then how come I can do this?

It comes down to what constitutes a work and what constitutes a copy

Not sure I understand your question. Are you asking why the site can not somehow automatically detect that you are adding content (be it photo or text) that is owned by someone else ?

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In this context there is no copy. There is no legal means by which you can take content owned and licensed by someone else and post it stating you are the licensee which is what automaticaly happens on all content posted on the site.

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In New Zealand copyright is automatic, regardless of whether it is posted on the site. There are economic provisions of copyright law, which apply to harm and loss, but there is also moral provision, which (and I copy fromt he NZ Government website on copyright):

Authors and directors have certain moral rights as well as the economic rights provided under the Act, which include:

  • the right to be identified as the author of a work (the right of attribution)
  • the right to object to derogatory treatment of the work (the right of integrity)
  • the right not to have a work falsely attributed to them.

Moral rights cannot be assigned to another person except when the author dies.

so when you say

Under normal circumstances, it is legally permitted, the challenge is the statement of licensing rights done on submissions. It is perfectly fine to post a link to their content as a reference, but cut and paste, even with attribution, at least as I understand it is not permitted.

they are ok as long as they attribute, which is what Ian was saying… I’m adding the qualifier that the amount of material copied becomes significant under fair use constraints

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In other words, I can cut and paste (and attribute) a portion of a work to educate, but not the entire work (without permission), and the author has the right to challenge the copy if it denigrates their work or causes them economic loss or harm

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The issue here is not if appropriately cited content can be legally reused. It can.

The issue is specific to the iNat site (or others with the same approach), where all content added applies a statement of license under the name of the submitter. Whether they use the same license or not in their account does not matter. Legally there is no means by which they can claim to be the licensee.

If iNat could implement a way to add content that does not apply a statement of license to it, or altrnatively add a means by which for example the citation could be added to specific content such as a comment then it would be be perfectly fine to add attributed content. Until that happens however, it is not permitted.

But that’s what I mean. In New Zealand copyright is automatic, regardless of whether you apply a statement. Such a statement is merely asserting the right visibly (which is recommended anyway), and in the case of iNaturalist and Creative Commons it is simply a statement of the conditions under which use may be made without seeking direct permission, even if that is “under no circumstances” ie asserting full rights under law, which still allows for fair use. And fair use is NOT use that denigrates or causes economic harm or loss.

If someone is copying large chunks of wikipedia to put in the description of an observation without attribution, then cease and desist. If with attribution, I would recommend strongly against it, as a link is suffice and one starts to question fair use… and the taxon literally links in the wikipedia anyway, so completely a waste of time!

You are not violating the copyright by using it if using it appropriately, you are violating the license and copyright by claiming (even if unintentionally and unknowingly) to be the licensee.

Appreciate the lively legal discussion, most of which is over my head. Just to be very clear, I’m talking about pasting in multiple sentences or paragraphs from someone else’s website WITHOUT referencing them or putting it in quotes. This seems clearly wrong to me. FWIW, I made a comment on this observer’s post and they quickly added quotation marks and a link to the person’s website.

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It is theft of intellectual content. Presenting the (quoted) words as mine is wrong.

In general, I think the issue is that iNat generally automatically adds some form of copyright to your observations if I understand it correctly (based on whatever licensing you’ve chosen for your observations). You generally can’t copyright text that is already copyrighted by someone else (whether you are copying it under fair use or not). However, most users are likely unaware that iNat is automatically applying some type of license to their observation text.

In practice, I would guess the risk of any legal action/enforcement is very low. These types of uses are not for profit, and the copyright holder would have very little to gain/reason to enforce.

That said, copy/pasting without attribution certainly should not be done. Most uses I see like this are students copy/pasting some sort of text for a school assignment that asks them for some taxonomic info or characters for their ID. I think it’s totally fair to ask people to add source info/cite appropriately here. If they are students, that will be a good learning experience about how science should work (even science via comments)!


Not true in New Zealand. I can write a review of a book, quote with attribution sections of the book under fair use provisions, and my review is copyright to myself (or my employer) whether I assert the rights or not. Others can cite portions of my review under fair use provisions, and their use is copyright to them in a similar automatic fashion. If they breach my copyright I am entitled to pursue for damages etc, and if I breached the copyright of the original work, then I can be pursued for remedy under law in a similar fashion. It’s been a long time since I looked at the Berne convention which the NZ law is based upon, but I’m confident of my interpretation of the NZ law. Improper appropriation of cultural icons and imagery from New Zealand is currently a huge and well covered subject.

Of course, every country and jurisdiction has it’s own implementation of copyright, so it may vary depending on where you are, and intellectual property across international borders is an incredibly complex subject. I’m simply stating here that in New Zealand, you do not need to assert copyright to own it, and quoting with attribution under fair use is permissable under any license such as Creative Commons because it is YOUR QUOTATION that is being licensed, not the original work


OK, it’s been a long long time since I looked at it, in fact not since 1992 (wow, am I that old? Oh heck, yes… my kids have grown up and left home, sheesh). Since then there has been a new act (1994), so my understanding is not as certain as I thought! NZ no longer applies a “fair use” provision per the Berne Convention, but instead has something called a “fair dealing” provision, which is outlined in brief in the following guide:
(but to be honest, I don’t see a difference to “fair use”)

So to re-iterate, in New Zealand at least, you don’t “copyright something”, and there is no question IF someone else has copyrighted something, because copyright is AUTOMATIC. A copyright statement is merely the implicit assertion of that right, a reminder if you will that you should think twice before using it unfairly because the owner would likely defend their copyright. Creative Commons licenses seem to come under the “blanket licensing” aspect mentioned in that document, but again that doesn’t preclude you from using in a “fair dealing” manner. Which brings me to the big point, it is difficult to ascertain exactly what fair dealing (or fair use) is, and I think it is best to err on the side of caution/respect, and just try not to copy!

One thought that occurs to me, is that “copy for personal study” might be what a new user in iNat is thinking they are doing, ie not being fully aware that their observations are public domain, rather thinking that the observation is a place for them to make notes and “keep copies for personal use”.