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Today I had some issues regarding an answer (now deleted) that I encountered in the Low Quality queue. The question asked for clarification about a solution by Michael A. Gottlieb, and included a screenshot of that solution without its copyright notice. The reviewed answer recommended to ask Michael A. Gottlieb. I marked the answer to recommend deletion, before noticing that the answer was written by Michael A. Gottlieb himself.

Afterwards, I got a notification of a comment to my review (I didn't know those existed) from Gottlieb, who asked me to remove the copyrighted material. I edited out the screenshot and flagged the question with a custom flag. I also commented Gottlieb that he should have edited the question and/or contacted the mods, instead of posting a non-answer.

Finally, the answer has been converted to a comment by Qmechanic.

So, my question about this incident are:

  • For future reference, what is the correct course of action in a case like this?
  • In a previous meta answer, DavidZ opined that quoting a textbook (giving attribution) is admisable under the fair use exception. It seems that Michael A. Gottlieb opines otherwise. Are screenshots different from quotations? How this incident affects/could affect other posts?
  • The offending image is still available in the edit history. Is this OK? Is there any way to remove it in a more permanent way (for example, asking imgur to delete it)?
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    $\begingroup$ I'm about to notify the community moderators of this situations, as legal issues are above all our pay grades. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Jul 1 '16 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, but, how can a solution have an owner?, isn't since aimed to be accesible to everyone? $\endgroup$ – CGH Jul 12 '16 at 20:06
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Hm. Well, this is a complicated situation because there are a bunch of individual problems to fix, none of which are really related to each other.

  • First, the main issue on your mind: the possible copyright infringement. I'm not a lawyer and not an official representative of SE, so I can't really give an authoritative answer to this, but the following is my understanding based on what I've heard and read:

    When you see content on SE that you suspect is infringing copyright, you are not required to do anything about it. The best thing you can do is alert the copyright owner, since it's their responsibility to deal with infringements of their copyright. They have the legal authority to force a response from SE.

    It's pointless to alert the mods; we won't, and perhaps legally can't, do anything about it. You could try bringing it to the attention of the SE team, but they may or may not do anything about it. You shouldn't edit it out, not if copyright infringement is the reason for the edit, because you're not qualified to make a legal judgement on whether a claim of copyright infringement is valid. (But you can edit it out for other reasons - see below.)

    For a TL;DR of sorts: once you have either notified the copyright owner or decided not to do so, the recommended course of action completely ignore the fact that the content may be infringing someone's copyright. You can then proceed to deal with other problems that the content may have, just as you would if there were no issue of copyright at all.

  • Now that you're not thinking about copyright, the likely next problem to check for is plagiarism. We have rules about referencing material taken from other sources, whether that material is an idea, a quotation, a screen capture, or whatever. As a rough summary, the rules amount to the following:

    1. Any substantial content or original idea taken from an external source should be attributed to that source
    2. Anything that is copied from an external source must be identified as being copied

    Violation of our referencing rules constitutes plagiarism.

    If you see content that qualifies as plagiarism, you're welcome to fix it yourself. If you know the source and can edit in the attribution required to bring it in line with the rules, go right ahead and do that. Otherwise, if the content isn't essential to the post, you can edit it out. Otherwise, you can always flag for mod attention and let us figure it out. (Especially if you notice someone repeatedly or blatantly plagiarizing, you should bring it to the mods' attention.)

    Do keep in mind that when you make any edits or cast any flags of this sort, you are dealing with a plagiarism problem. Not a copyright problem. The two do often go together - when someone plagiarizes, they are often also committing copyright infringement - but you should ignore the copyright issue and only deal with the plagiarism. Don't mention copyright in your flags or your edit summaries.

    In the specific case you're asking about, the source of the content in the picture was not identified, so I would consider that an instance of plagiarism. It would be an easy one to fix by editing in a link to the source, assuming you knew the source.

  • There's yet another problem in the post, which is that one should never post an image with textual content. Or in other words, anything that can be typed out should be typed out, not posted as an image. Again, this is an easy one to fix: when you see an image of text, just transcribe the text. When it's a mix of text and pictures, crop the image to include only the parts that you really can't type out and upload the cropped version in place of the original, in the same edit where you type out the text you cropped out.


Regarding your individual questions:

  • For future reference, what is the correct course of action in a case like this?

    Hopefully I covered this above

  • In a previous meta answer, DavidZ opined that quoting a textbook (giving attribution) is admisable under the fair use exception. It seems that Michael A. Gottlieb opines otherwise. Are screenshots different from quotations? How this incident affects/could affect other posts?

    Well, as long as lawyers are not involved, we don't consider screenshots to be materially different from quotations. In fact screenshots should be replaced with quotations whenever possible, as I said above. If the lawyers do get involved, it's up to a court to determine whether they're different, and whether either of them qualifies as fair use. In any case, fair use is a copyright thing, and to really underscore my point that we do not and cannot care about copyright, I'm going to refrain from giving my opinion as to whether this constitutes fair use.

  • The offending image is still available in the edit history. Is this OK? Is there any way to remove it in a more permanent way (for example, asking imgur to delete it)?

    The only reason we might care if something like this is visible in the edit history is copyright infringement - but again, we should not worry about copyright infringement. So we should not do anything about the content being visible in the edit history.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I agree. Legally compelling reasons aside, we also have an obligation to be good internet citizens, and if a copyright owner shows up and politely asks that we remove their content then I would argue it is our moral obligation to follow through. Moreover, if it's a respected member of the wider community, as is the case at hand, then it's also in our best interest to do so. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jul 1 '16 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty copyright is not a moral issue, but a legal one. I don't think a moral argument such as the one you're making has any relevance to our copyright policy. (I also don't agree with the argument, but that's a moot point.) And besides that, by handling copyright violations ourselves, according to what I've heard, we implicitly accept legal responsibility for all copyright infringement on the site. That makes Stack Exchange potentially liable for millions of dollars in damages. Even if we admit your moral argument, is it worth putting the company out of business? $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 1 '16 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ Thank you for your very detailed answer. $\endgroup$ – Bosoneando Jul 1 '16 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, I really just don't buy that legal theory, particularly in terms of exposure to SE itself. Even if community policies exist to that effect, SE is still a comms provider. Or is there a formal legal argument to the effects you claim? $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jul 1 '16 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ On the moral side, fortunately it can be left to each individual community member. However, copyright infringement is an issue which does actually affect a lot of content providers we depend on, and I'd argue we do have a duty to keep them in business - but, ultimately, to each their own. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jul 1 '16 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty OK, maybe I went a little too far. I'll edit my answer accordingly. Anyway, the legal argument is the DMCA safe harbor provision, 17 U.S. Code § 512 (c), which specifies that service providers which host user-contributed content have to designate a DMCA agent to receive copyright infringement claims. SE has a designated agent listed in their ToS. Precedent from Viacom vs YouTube holds that (cont.) $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 2 '16 at 0:14
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    $\begingroup$ (cont.) the burden for determining infringing activity on a service provider's network lies with the copyright holder (section (C) of the ruling), and from what I've read elsewhere, it's generally believed that a service provider which actively acts on copyright infringement claims, without having authoritative knowledge (typically, from the copyright holder) that the content is infringing, is adopting that burden and thus giving up the safe harbor provision. Something like that, anyway. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 2 '16 at 0:28
  • $\begingroup$ Anyway, if you want to discuss the merits of this policy (or the moral aspects) further, we should probably do it in Physics Chat. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 2 '16 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty, I realize it sounds surprising, but for your reference, that is actually how the law works. I spent some time talking to someone who knows a lot about the DMCA and I was surprised to learn this, too, but hey, the law doesn't always make sense. Anyway, the bottom line is: moderators here don't handle copyright claims. To file a copyright dispute, file a DMCA claim. But, plagiarism is our business. If you see plagiarism, flag it. Plagiarism isn't cool and should never be welcome on SE sites. $\endgroup$ – D.W. Jul 3 '16 at 3:27

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