There are some books published without a back-of-book index, which I feel is a dreadful shame. As part of my research I decided to create an index of one such book. Doing so is legal for my own use, and would be illegal (I guess) if I tried to sell copies...but what if I shared the new index on a website, or gave printed copies away for free?

For a book that is 'out of copyright' in my country then I guess this is allowed? What if the book is not in the public domain? I assume we have to look at the 4 'fair use' guidelines?

I haven't copied anything verbatim from the original book, just individual words. I haven't detracted from the book's sales or rivalled the publisher's business in any way. I am not making a profit. I'm doing this for scholarly reasons. I'm a complete amateur at indexing and am not trying to showcase my skills in order to get hired.

However, you could argue that the magnitude of my act somehow encompasses the entirety of the original book. Perhaps the author/publisher would feel annoyed that I'd somehow usurped their authority in some way? Am I on safe ground?

Can you argue my usage was "transformative" enough to go beyond being a copy?

(I could ask the copyright holder's permission, but let us imagine they are impossible to track down, or that I end up with 100 such indexes to share.)

You cannot give me legal advice, of course, but has anyone seen a similar situation which helps shed light on this grey area? Or heard about something along the same lines in another industry? I'm in the UK but am interested in answers about the US situation too.


4 Answers 4


To answer this question, I inquired with the American Society for Indexing.

I asked:

Is it legal to create an index of a book and publish that index, without consulting the autor or publisher of that book?

I received the following answer:

According to US copyright law, copyright in an index exists separately from the original work that is being indexed, although upon payment of the fee to the indexer by the publisher or author, the rights to publish the index are given to the publisher/author.

Accordingly, it is possible for an indexer to create an index that is publishable. A good example is the "Good Old Index," which is a separately published index to the Doubleday edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories.

I understand this answer to mean that

Yes, it is legal to share an index you made from someone else's book.

  • Wow, I had no idea there would be a society for indexers. Seems obvious now! Their answer seems pretty clear. If no index has yet been published, then it's free for anyone to jump in. Thank you! Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 8:03
  • Other worldwide bodies are listed at indexers.org.uk/index.php?id=104 Commented Oct 25, 2014 at 8:24

has anyone seen a similar situation which helps shed light on this grey area?

I have in front of me two publications: Common LISP: The Language, by Guy Steele (et al.) and published by Digital Press, and Common LISP: The Index, by Rosemary Simpson and published by Coral Software Corp and Franz Inc. Both were published in the US in the 1980s. I was fairly active in the LISP community at the time and I didn't hear a ruckus about that index — just cheering.

It is possible that the two publishers cooperated (the cover design of the index is clearly derived from the original book), but I don't know. There is no acknowledgment section in the index.

Since the index doesn't reuse content from the original I don't see how it could infringe. I offer this one example where somebody did exactly that without apparent repercussions.

Is it legal?

I am not a lawyer and you should consult one rather than just trusting people on the Internet. That said, another answerer argues that an index infringes copyright because it is "an exact duplicate of single words from another work", and I dispute that claim.

Words cannot be copyrighted. Even book titles cannot be copyrighted, as demonstrated by the number of duplicate and mostly-overlapping titles out there, so surely single words cannot be. (If you invented the word you might be able to pursue a trademark, but that's different. And rare, within the domain of things you might want to put into an index.) Using words like "iterator" and "class" and "inheritance" in an index does not infringe the rights of the person who wrote the programming book you're indexing; if it did, then using those words in contexts other than an index would also infringe, yet we see many many books on the same topics and no record of the person who got there first successfully suing the others. Conclusion: either this is legal or there is a vast untapped market of prospective, successful lawsuits that lawyers have routinely ignored. Which do you think more likely?

  • Excellent example, thank you. I had never heard of an index published separately before. I wonder how many more are out there - it's almost impossible to Google for them. Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 20:50
  • I love your conclusion! I'm still torn on the answer though, because an index isn't about your own choice of words; it's saying "these are the words from book XXXX" and maybe there are issues with that implicit link back to the original work. Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 20:50
  • I also wonder where the line is drawn since a 256-color image could be represented as an index of the 256 "words" (colors) and their "page" (x,y coordinates). This is different in degree; a typical index does not list every word and only gives a page number (not a word number). Fair use considers "the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole". For "the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work", the LISP book's index may have increased the value.
    – user5232
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 21:21
  • I think that difference in degree is pretty important. But I'm not a lawyer. (BTW, a third-party index is a pain in the neck to build and maintain, so you'd have to be pretty motivated. The second edition of the LISP book did have an index, by the way.) Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 21:25
  • Possibly relevant: "in A.V. ex rel. Vanderhye v. iParadigms, LLC, 562 F.3d 630 (4th Cir. 2009), the court found that creation of a database using complete copies of copyrighted documents for purposes of detecting and discouraging plagiarism to be a transformative use." ("it can be transformative in function or purpose without adding to the original work.") ("USPTO Position on Fair Use of Copies of NPL Made in Patent Examination")
    – user5232
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 21:36

If your index doesn't contain any of the original work's text, I fail to see how it could be considered copyright infringement. Since it can't be used without the original text, it's not infringing on the author's ability to make a living off their work. Possibly even the contrary.

  • 1
    You have infringed on the author's ability to make money with an index of his own. Think of movie rights. Just because a book does not include a DVD with a movie version of the text does not give anyone the right to make a movie of it.
    – user5645
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 20:50
  • This is an interesting point, which is relevant to the "fair use" guidelines. Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 20:51
  • But a movie would presumably include much of the text of the book. An index does not. It's not the same thing. (Which brings a thought to mind: Lots of Hollywood movie versions of books have nothing to do with the book. Arguably if you do that, there is no copyright violation. I guess there'd still be trademark violation in the title.)
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 21:22

I think if you create and publish an index to the copyrighted work of another person you are infringing on their copyright.

Basically what you are doing is using their work to create a derivative work, similar to making a movie of a novel.

Also you should note that giving your index away for free does not.change anything. If you made a movie from one of Stephen King's novels and gave away the DVDs for free you'd still have broken the law.

Make sure you ask a lawyer.

  • If I write a book that attempts to explain the science of Star Trek (hey, I said attempts :-) ), have I created a derivative work just because I talk about warp drives and transporters? If you say no, then how is that different from creating an index where I refer to the stuff in another book, but don't actually duplicate any of it? Making a movie from a book is very different; the movie presumably uses the same characters, plot, setting, and so on. Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 1:10
  • An index is an exact duplicate of single words from another work. There is no new original content. It can even be done automatically by a machine. There is no artistic creativity involved, no "writing". But since the laws do not always follow common sense, all our answers are merely speculation and the OP should consult an expert, which costs around 100 dollars.
    – user5645
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 6:51
  • It's an exact duplicate of single words, but ... I bet I could find a lot of individual words in Harry Potter that I also used in one of my books. In a different order and a different context, but she used the word "tomorrow" and I wrote a book with the word "tomorrow" first! Creating an index is creative because at a minimum you have to decide which words to include. You probably engage in some interpretation. Like you might have an index entry of "George Washington" that links to text that refers to him only as "the first president", etc.
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 21:27

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