Here's the scenario. Person A may read a story in a non-English language. As time passes, he still remembers the story and passes it onto his offspring. His children ask him about the author, but the author is forgotten. So, let's say one of the children decides to put the story into written words. Does this person have to indicate the origin(s) of this story, or take full credit of the work?

Similarly, what happens if a grandmother retells the biblical narrative of creation to her grandchildren? Do the children cite the grandmother or a specific copy of the Bible? Are the biblical verses copyrighted or in the public domain?

  • The mind boggles at the thought of determining copyright for the Bible. :-) "If the words were divinely inspired, who do I cite in the footnote?"
    – JPmiaou
    Dec 21 '17 at 20:40

Legally, it depends.

If you're asking in terms of legality, then it varies depending on many factors including country of publication, the nature of the original work and the new work, how old the original is, and where the original was first shared.

In terms of "best practices," always provide what information you can.

The original purpose of citation is NOT legal (protecting copyrights), but so that your reader knows where to go to find more information or verify the accuracy of what you're saying. In that spirit, all possible information about the sources should be provided.


Ethically, you should make it clear that the story is not your own work. Surround it in quotes, intent it differently, do whatever you would do if the author was known. Then, where you would normally cite the original author, just say "author unknown".

Claiming someone else's work as your own is unethical, regardless of how you came by the work or whether the author is known.

If you retell a story from the christian bible you should acknowledge that fact for the benefit of the majority of the world's inhabitants who are not familiar with that document. I think the bible is either public domain or owned by Google, but in any event it is unethical to use material from any other source and claim it as your own original work.

  • 3
    Sorry Google, it was just a joke.
    – Joe Hass
    Sep 17 '13 at 23:40
  • 2
    Your reference to an ethical obligation to acknowledge the authors of "the Bible" rests upon the (invalid) assumption that it (or any part of it) is an original work with identifiable authors who have moral rights. It is an anthology of folk tales compiled by an unknown collector.
    – Fortiter
    Sep 18 '13 at 5:56
  • @Fortiter I completely agree with your comments about "the Bible", but I didn't say that there was an obligation to acknowledge the original authors. I said there was an obligation to acknowledge that the material was not one's original work. The OP offered a silly hypothetical question, I just couldn't let it go.
    – Joe Hass
    Sep 18 '13 at 10:27
  • So long as we distinguish between "it is unethical to copy text from the King James Bible without attribution" and "you should remind readers that Noah's ark was not your idea".
    – Fortiter
    Sep 19 '13 at 9:20

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