>May I quote the Internet in my story?

>You’re surfing the Internet and you find THE quote that will make your story. All you have to do is insert it right . . . there.

Wait. There’s no question that the Internet is a gold mine of information, but beware. Some of that gold is fool’s gold, and some of the gold has been already been claimed by someone else.

Let’s talk about the fool’s gold first. Any fool can put anything on the Internet. That does not mean it’s accurate, legal or fair. Even Wikipedia, which sounds very official, is written by individuals who don’t necessarily have any credentials. Before you go quoting the Net, check the source. Who put this information out there? Are they reliable? Can you trace the quote back to where it began? For example, I’m finding articles lately that cite various studies, books and other articles. The real gold is back at that original study or author. It’s even better if I can get to an individual expert who will let me interview him myself and get some new quotes that might be more up-to-date.

As with books, newspapers, magazines, and journals, material on the Internet is considered a secondary source. Try to get to the people who are actually involved in whatever you’re writing about. Use the Internet as a route to those people and as a source for background material.

Now about those claims. What people write on the Internet is just as copyrighted as anything else that gets published. Therefore, the copyright rules apply. You can’t quote more than a few lines without violating their copyright, and you should never take information from anywhere without giving credit to the source. For a refresher on copyright law, check www.copyright.gov.

In addition to the legal rights, there’s the question of privacy. The Net is loaded with forums, discussion groups and blog comments that might fit perfectly into your story. But how would you like it if you thought you were just chatting online and found your words in a newspaper article? You wouldn’t. The fair thing to do is e-mail the person, explain what you’re doing and ask if you can quote them, or, even better, interview them. Most of the time they’ll say yes.

Google and its brethren can make a writer’s life so much easier, but before you go quoting whatever you find online, consider the source and make sure you have permission. After all, what goes online stays online a long time, and the whole world has access to it.

Speaking of the whole world having access, I’ve had a bit of trouble with spam lately. I apologize to those who have had to deal with people trying to sell them unrelated goods or services off this site. I still welcome your comments, but I’ve had to change settings so that I must approve them first in order to protect us all from spam. Don’t let that scare you away. Your words don’t have to be brilliant; they just have to be legitimate comments related to this blog.


2 Comments on “>May I quote the Internet in my story?”

  1. Chris Milton says:

    >Sue, no worries about the spam protection – I’m sure we all understand 🙂 I thought I’d note ….– fool’s gold can lead you to be sued for libel if the quote you pick turns out to be contentious. Anyone repeating a libel, whether knowing it to be libellous or not, is as culpable under the law as the person making the original statement. Ignorance or repeating a primary source (except in privileged circumstances, e.g. evidence in court cases, or live broadcasts) is not considered a defence, although it may be argued in mitigation. This is all to do with quoting other people – expressing your own opinion is a different matter. — real gold: it’s worth remembering that copyright only exists in things which have taken some effort or skill to create, so neither facts nor ideas can be copyrighted, just the way in which they are expressed or discussed. So you can always freely discuss facts revealed on another website or in another publication, you just cannot quote the way in which another person has commented upon or expressed those facts. — there’s also the issue of confidentiality. Material is considered to be confidential if it has the quality of confidence, even if it’s available online. Forum discussions may be considered to be confidential, especially if the forum in question is passworded. Similarly, many organisations put confidential documents on their websites without realising that Google will pick them up. The documents do not lose their confidential nature, and so quoting from them can be considered a breach of confidence. All this is from the point of view of UK law. I don’t know about US law, but I imagine it’s not that dissimilar. Sorry to ramble … it’s a bit like a whole line of dominos and once you’ve tipped over the first they all have to fall over! Chris [and I have no objection if you think this is all a little arcane and decide not to put it forward to the rest of the group!]

  2. Suelick says:

    >Chris,Thanks for the added info. U.S. law is quite similar, and it is true that you cannot copyright facts or ideas, just the way they’re expressed. You just need to make sure they’re valid and, as you mention, that they’re not libelous or otherwise illegal. Sue

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