I'm reading a physics textbook now and taking personal notes as I read. I'd like to put my own personal notes online for free so that other members of my lab group can refer to them easily.

How can I avoid legal and moral plagiarism?

  1. The equations - I assume the textbook publisher does not own the math/physics equations in the book. In my notes, should I cite the textbook and other references from the textbook?

  2. The words - I know I cannot just copy the entire text online with one citation. However, the physics will need some explanation. Would it be enough rewrite explanations in my own words? How many citations of a book is too far towards just copying the book?

  3. The diagrams/pictures - I assume the textbook publisher owns or bought the rights to the diagrams and pictures in the book. How can I use diagrams in my notes? Is redrawing diagrams in my own way enough?

  • There is no reason to make your notes available to the general public. There are countless options of sharing documents over the web in a private manner.
    – user5645
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 20:20
  • @what I thought the question might be off-topic, but I didn't see a better stackexchange site for it. Could you recommend one?
    – well
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 22:35
  • @what also, if this is the correct place for the question, I think it is a reasonable question with or without the poor justification.
    – well
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 22:37
  • @what While I disagree with the meta thread that decided this, legal questions are on-topic here. Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 3:18
  • 1
    @Will I did answer you question in my comment above. Use some method to share documents that allow you to password protect the access and your problems are solved. (You said you want to share with your lab group only, not the general public.) If you want to make your excerpts public, read this article, which answers your question: ogc.harvard.edu/pages/copyright-and-fair-use In short: it is not fair use if the excerpt is too long (quantitative), contains the "heart" of the work (qualitative), or makes buying the book unnecessary for readers (adverse market effect).
    – user5645
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 7:33

2 Answers 2


What you're looking at here is a fair use scenario (I'm assuming that you're in the US, other countries have different laws). In short you're covered, assuming that you're using a small portion of the work for non-profit education use.

What small means is up to the courts to decide but in general, if it's a couple percent of the total work then you're OK just citing it. Citing the diagrams would work on the same basis, that is if you're posting only a couple then it would be all right but if you take every diagram from the book then you're probably breaking the criteria for fair use (but might not, it depends on the amount available - if it's just a single diagram and you copy it, and that diagram isn't the whole of the book, then you should be in the clear).

Hope this helps!


Another option, of course, is to write to the publisher / rights holder and ask for their permission. For the sort of project you describe, they may well be happy to give you permission subject to certain caveats like linking to the book, displaying its cover and so on.

If they say "no" then you know where you stand - but it will only cost you an email to find out if they would be prepared to give you permission and, who knows, they may see it as a sales opportunity.

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