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A company, M, buys components from company, S, to build into their product. Company S has technical documentation regarding safety and maintenance available in many languages and publicly available in the internet.

Is it ethical for company M to incorporate this documentation into it's own product documentation without first getting permission from the supplier or, at least, indicating the source?

  • Did they release the documentation into the public domain? If yes, you may incorporate their docs into yours without asking first. It would still be ethical to name the author/source. What the legal implications might be (warranty, liability), I wouldn't know. It might be best to see a lawyer. – user5645 Apr 26 '15 at 13:13
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I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

First, check any license terms that accompany Company S's documentation. They might have published it with the intention that other vendors will incorporate it (e.g. some Apache platforms), or they might not intend that but allow it under their license (e.g. Stack Exchange, or anything else that uses the CC-BY-SA license). Be sure to check whether any license you find permits commercial use; some don't.

In the absence of any explicit permission or license, incorporating their documentation into your own would be making a derivative work that might violate their copyright. (Wholesale incorporation would very likely be a copyright violation; being selective would come down to a question of how much and what you selected, and the limits there probably vary by jurisdiction.)

If Company S's license permits incorporating their documentation into other products, check the license to see if attribution is also required. Even if it is not, in my experience (technical writer in the software field) it's best to attribute anyway. Not only is it more honest, but it's also visibly honest -- important if you're concerned that people who don't know that you had permission notice the copying. You don't want to get a reputation as an unscrupulous business.

  • Yes. If S's documentation comes with a licensing agreement that allows such re-use, than of course it's fine. If you contact them and they give you permission, it's fine. Otherwise, this is not just unethical but totally illegal and S could drag M to court. Citing a source is protection against charges of plagiarism, but NOT against copyright violation. The law views copyright violation as a form of stealing. You can't defend yourself from a theft charge by saying, "But I wrote the name of the person I stole the car from on the bumper!" – Jay Apr 27 '15 at 19:03
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This is a legal issue. Specifically, a copyright issue. Assuming we are talking about the United States, company S owns the copyright to their documentation.

It is illegal for company M or anyone else to incorporate company S's documentation into their own without obtaining the right to do so from company S.

Consult an attorney. Also, take a look at The Copyright Handbook, which explains the basics of copyright in a very clear way.

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This is not an ethical question. It is a legal question. Ethics deals with professional conduct over and above what is required by law. Copyright is a matter of law, not ethics.

In this particular case, however, it is also a matter of contracts. You should be negotiating a licence to use their content as part of your purchase agreement with them, and you should also be negotiating for access to their source files so that you can reuse them more easily. Ideally, you should negotiate for an ongoing window into their docs process so that you always get the latest content from them to include in your docs.

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