Question about copyrights and "open" standards.

Subject: Question about copyrights and "open" standards.
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Matthew Kaster <matthewkaster -at- yahoo -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 17 Aug 2006 15:10:14 -0400

Matthew Kaster wondered: <<I've recently been asked to write the technical manual for a new CPU board designed by a small local company. The board is based on a form factor that (I've been told) is an "Open" standard. Several other manufactures are already selling boards based on this spec. The design guides and technical specification papers are all freely available on the web, but they are also clearly copyrighted. In this case the copyright holder is the biggest manufacturer in that industry. This is all new to me, so I said “play it safe” and get permission to use the information.>>

That's the correct way to proceed. You can't use someone else's copyrighted material "as is" without their permission. And get that permission in writing. But the "as is" part is the interesting part: see below for more.

<<But the Project Manager who hired me does not want me to contact the company that owns the copyright (since the new board will soon be in direct competition with their product).>>

If your manager doesn't want to do this, then you shouldn't do it. You could cause serious trouble for your employer if the copyright holder decided to use the knowledge of your existence to squash you as a competitor. But really, if they're "the biggest in the industry", why would they bother? It's not like you'll be posing any threat to them. After all, they haven't tried to squash "several other manufacturers", so why would they bother you? The manager's logic seems highly suspect.

<<My question: If a specification paper is freely available but copyrighted, are the numbers considered copyright material as well?>>

Emphatically not. Copyright protects the actual expression of information, not the information itself. This is why you can legally write a research paper based on information published in encyclopedias, journal articles, and Web sites. It's also why you can write "boy meets girl, boy marries girl" fiction: it's not like there's anything new about the plot, after all. <g>

<<Can I include stuff like mechanical dimensions, maximum ratings, etc, and mention what they are based on and where I got them?>>

The simplest and safest solution is to simply refer readers to the copyright holder's Web site (the address of the specification). As a general rule, you should be safe if you use your own words (where clear alternatives exist) rather than those of the copyright holder, and do your own layout.

But the legal aspects of the problem is a bit more interesting than that, however: since you'll effectively be repeating _all_ of the information provided by the copyright holder, a good lawyer could claim that you violated their copyright. "Fair use" is intended to protect our ability to reuse information, but there's an implicit understanding that it doesn't mean "all" of the information.

On the other hand, though I'm an educated layman on this topic, I'm not a lawyer. If your manager is seriously concerned about this, get a second opinion from a copyright lawyer--***NOT*** from a general lawyer. Different expertise.
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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca

(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)

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question about copyrights and "open" standards.: From: Matthew Kaster

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