I attended a speech that was open to the general public and took my own very detailed notes of everything that the speaker said. I would like to publish my notes as a report of the speech. Does copyright law let me do this without requesting permission from the speaker?

I will fully attribute the speaker as the source--that is, I will clearly mention that these are my personal notes of the speaker's original speech; there is no question of plagiarism here. My notes are very detailed, so they capture almost every idea in the original speech, but they are not a verbatim recording (though some phrases here and there are probably verbatim).

I know that I can eliminate any concern by requesting permission from the speaker, but I want to know my rights even if I do not request permission. So, if the speaker doesn't want to give me permission, would copyright law still let me publish my notes anyway?

I am in Canada, but I would appreciate the answer for any copyright jurisdiction, since the core principles of the international Berne Convention are quite similar.


3 Answers 3


1 Copyright

A speech, if delivered to a limited audience such as an auditorium, may fall under copyright law.

For example, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, famous speech "I have a dream", which he delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was not considered a "general publication" by a US court, and King therefore did not forfeit his copyright in its text.

I would therefore assume that the speech you heard is probably copyrighted.

2 Copyright infringement

I doubt that a mere retelling of any work in your own words would be considered an independent creation in its own right. Copyright requires a certain threshold of originality. Otherwise it is plagiarism.

The New York Times permissions page says that:

It may also be considered infringement if a large percentage of the publication consists of quotes from New York Times articles.

Since a praraphrase is considered a quotation, and your notes probably mostly consist of paraphrases, I would think that your notes would infringe on the speaker's copyright.

  • "Otherwise it is plagiarism." I think you mean, "Otherwise it is infringement." Plagiarism and copyright are completely distinct concepts; my question has nothing to do with plagiarism (I will definitely cite the original speaker).
    – Tripartio
    Apr 29, 2015 at 12:08
  • No, I meant plagiarism. That paragraph is just an additional note, not part of my general argument.
    – user5645
    Apr 29, 2015 at 12:19
  • But it is not necessarily plagiarism. If the writer cites the origin, then it is still copyright infringement as you explain, but it is not plagiarism at all. The NYT quotation that you cite is certainly not describing plagiarism; it is only infringement, as they explicitly state. Even if that sentence is "just an additional note", calling such a situation plagiarism is inaccurate.
    – Tripartio
    Apr 29, 2015 at 17:00
  • I don't agree with the plagiarism comment, but the rest of your answer makes the most sense with the case I described. (Of course, I understand that no one is giving legal advice here.) Thanks!
    – Tripartio
    May 5, 2015 at 1:28

As I am not familiar with Canadian copyright law at all, I will answer from a US-specific basis.

Firstly, copyright may not apply to his speech at all as it was a public performance and not a fixed expression.

Also, if you assume that copyright does apply to his speech, this may have no bearing on your notes since ideas are not copyrightable, just their fixed expression, and his words (his expression of the ideas) do not match your words (your expression of the ideas).

Finally, fair use may apply as well if you provide either commentary or criticism.

  • A speech, if delivered to a limited audience such as an auditorium, may fall under copyright law. See Martin Luther King's I have a dream speech. Also, I doubt that a mere retelling of any work in your own words would be considered an independe t creation in its own right. Copyright requires a certain threshold of originality. Otherwise it is olagiarism.
    – user5645
    Apr 26, 2015 at 17:42
  • @What: Is that German law or American law?
    – Tom Au
    Apr 26, 2015 at 17:52
  • The ruling about the copyright regarding King's speech is obviously US law. Google is your friend. The threshold of originality is a concept in many jurisdictions, among them the USA. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threshold_of_originality
    – user5645
    Apr 26, 2015 at 18:28
  • Sorry for the typos, the keys on this mobile phone are too small for my sausage fingers.
    – user5645
    Apr 26, 2015 at 18:30
  • The "threshold of originality" criteria does NOT mean that you cannot retell someone else's story in your own words. What it means is that you cannot copyright words that are so close to a bare statement of facts that anyone relating those facts would almost have to use the same words. There was a big case on this a few years back where the court ruled that a telephone company cannot copyright a phone book. A person's name and telephone number are bare facts and you cannot copyright facts. The court then said that while a particular arrangement of facts can be copyrighted, the idea of ...
    – Jay
    Apr 27, 2015 at 14:10

Disclaimer 1: I am not a lawyer, but I've done enough writing that I've had to research copyright law. Disclaimer 2: My research has been of U.S. law, and not Canadian. The legal systems of the two countries are similar, and copyright is mostly governed by international treaties so they should be similar, but I cannot assure you that they're the same here. That said:

Copyright protects the exact words or pictures used, not ideas. U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled that if you take something written by someone else, and then re-write it in your own words, you are not violating their copyright. I don't have the court citations but there was a big case many years ago where a news organization was taking another news organizations stories and rewriting them. The court ruled this did not violate copyright: You can't copyright a fact, only the words you use to discuss that fact. Like if the New York Times was the first to report that Senator Jones had won re-election, they could not then sue every other newspaper that also reported that Senator Jones had won, not unless that other newspaper copied the New York Times story word-for-word. (Or copied parts of it.)

You have a limited right to quote from what another person has said or written. This is called "fair use". There is no hard and fast rule here. Like there's no law that says you can quote 50 words but not 51 words. The legal principle is, Are you quoting enough of another person's work that someone might buy your book (or article or whatever) rather than the original? The law also gives more leeway if you are quoting someone for purposes of "education" or "literary criticism" than for commercial purposes.

Bear in mind that copyright is all about PROPERTY rights: you can't steal my work in a way that costs me money. It has nothing to do with originality of ideas or intellectual honesty. If you claim that some idea is original to you but you really got it from someone else, that may violate the academic principle of plagiarism. But plagiarism is not a crime: it's an academic violation. You can be kicked out of school or black-balled from academic publications for plagiarism, but you can't be sued or jailed. Anyway, you can pretty much 100% prevent accusations of plagiarism by giving proper credit. Giving credit does zero for charges of copyright violation. If you copied somebody else's entire book word for word, and then added a line that said, "This book is a copy of ...", that wouldn't help you in court at all. It would just be a confession of the crime.

  • I'm not a lawyer either, but I doubt that the case you refer to is relevant to the scenario in my question. An event is a historical fact, so I could see why a news report (a factual work) would not be considered sufficiently original to preclude someone reporting the same event in their own words--the event being reported is not a creative idea, so reporting the same idea in original words should not be violation of anyone's copyright. Perhaps it isn't clear from my original description, but the speech is an opinioned work--someone's original ideas--which is very different from a news report.
    – Tripartio
    Apr 29, 2015 at 17:09
  • @ochado Okay, maybe that particular court case wasn't the best example. But the same principle applies: an idea is not protected by copyright, just the words used to express that idea. If someone writes an editorial in which he says that he thinks the U.S. should send military aid to Ukraine (just to pick something at random), he has a copyright in the specific words he used. But he does not have a copyright in the idea of sending military aid to Ukraine. He can't sue everyone else who suggests aiding Ukraine for copyright violation, as long as they do not use the same words.
    – Jay
    Apr 29, 2015 at 17:31
  • I don't have a long list of relevant court cases off the top of my head so I can't cite a specific precedent on that, but this isn't an idea I just made up -- I don't claim any copyright on it! -- you can find this in many discussions of copyright.
    – Jay
    Apr 29, 2015 at 17:32
  • If you think about it, what you are asking is what reporters do every day. They attend a speech by a politician or a celebrity and then write a news story reporting what the speaker said. I've never heard of someone suing a reporter for copyright violation for reporting on a speech. Maybe for libel if they radically misquote the speech, but not copyright violation.
    – Jay
    Apr 29, 2015 at 17:36

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