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Are book summaries legal? [COMPLETE ANSWER]

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Are book summaries legal?

It is a good question, and the answer is not so trivial, but in this short article, I will try to review it from several angles and come to the clear and concise conclusion of the legality of book summaries.

The easy accessibility to various books online has led to a lot of confusion about what is and what is not a copyright violation. While some books copyright violation issues are very simple, most walk the line of “maybe, maybe not.” So how do you know if you are staying on the legal side of that line?

Book summaries and copyright

The U.S. Copyright Office defines “copyright” as,

“A form of protection provided by the laws of the United States for ‘original works of authorship’, including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations.”

But not everything can be protected by copyright. Some examples of things that can’t be copyrighted include:

  • Facts
  • S. laws
  • Ideas/theories/concepts
  • Names, Titles, and Short phrases

Copyright violation occurs when someone other than the creator of the work uses it without permission from the creator.

We often can see the following question on forums:

I have recently found a book summary website/app/podcast/youtube channel that creates summaries of non-fiction books without notifying the book publishers and authors. And I am wondering are those book summaries legal? Creator mentions the book title, author, and publisher and uses the book cover. I’m interested if it is all legal to produce book summaries

Typical question at the forum

According to “Fair use,” the answer is:

If the summarizer is creating condensed versions of books and selling them, then the publisher is violating copyright law. But no one can say for certain until the summarizer is sued and a determination is made by a judge. That’s just the way the copyright law is. Everything must be determined on a case-by-case basis

Answer to the “Are book summaries legal?”

Now let’s consider a mostly original summary.

In that case:

  • copyright doesn’t protect ideas
  • the expression of those ideas can be copyrighted
  • the summary is a different expression of the same ideas
  • the summary publisher is the copyright holder of the summary

It means, no copyright violation has occurred.

I’ve seen a lot of non-fiction books with titles like “10 Habits of Effective People” and “50 Rules of Profitable E-commerce Stores.” I think it would be possible to argue that any work which contains the same 10 habits or 50 rules, regardless of how those habits or rules are worded, are identical expressions of the same idea.

So, to summarize (perhaps I shouldn’t use that word :)):

  • Book condensing is not fair use
  • Summarizing in your own words is not a copyright violation. Fair use doesn’t apply
  • Summarizing a book about 10 habits by creating a reworded list of the 10 habits might be a copyright violation
Are Book Summaries Legal?
Are Book Summaries Legal?

What do lawyers say?

Listen to what a several Intellectual Property Lawyers are saying on “Are book summaries legal?” subject:

If you want to write a summary of any novel, without quoting from it, you are free to do it

Are book summaries legal?

You would likely get in trouble only if your summary contained long excerpts directly from the book

Are book summaries legal?

Copyright does not protect ideas, only a particular expression of those ideas

Are book summaries legal?

Every day, in newspapers across the country, book reviewers are summarizing new books

Are book summaries legal?

As long as you do not quote directly from the book, or copy any of the content, then writing a unique summary is not illegal. You can mention the title, you can even quote sentences from the book as long as they are cited, you just can’t reproduce chunks of the content

Are book summaries legal?

It is perfectly legal. It is possible to have copyright in words, images, etc., but not in ideas, plots, characters, storylines, etc.

Are book summaries legal?

I would suggest checking with a copyright attorney in your country. Laws on trademark and copyright may vary

Are book summaries legal?

In most cases, if the author is fully credited and a link to the book or writer’s website is provided, then no legal action is taken. The author receives a free backlink which is good for SEO. However, it’s good practice to write to the author and obtain permission. If the author doesn’t reply: legally it means that the author has not put forth any objection to your free use of their content

Are book summaries legal?

The only real cases have come about when the summary quoted extensively from the text of the book, and the author cried foul

Are book summaries legal?

Copyright law does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing anything. Copyright only protects how you describe these “things” but does not protect the “thing” itself

Are book summaries legal?

Book summaries ARE legal (in almost every country on the planet). As long as you describe a book, in your own words, the same “thing” being described by the book author in their own words. You do NOT need any permission from the author or publisher because it has nothing to do with them

Are book summaries legal?

Paraphrasing a copyrighted work without a license may or may not be found to be a copyright violation. If it is sufficiently different than the original work, then it will be found to be a ‘derivative work’. This means that your added work has turned the original work into completely different work and thus is not a copyright violation

Are book summaries legal?

In any case “Fair Use” suggests that a ‘short review’ is protected speech. The problem arises when the ‘review’ reveals information such that buying the original work becomes superfluous

Are book summaries legal?

Real Story

In one famous case, The Nation magazine obtained a copy of Gerald Ford’s memoirs before their publication. In the magazine’s article about the memoirs, only 300 words from Ford’s 200,000-word manuscript were quoted verbatim. The Supreme Court ruled that this was not fair use because the material quoted (dealing with the Nixon pardon) was the “heart of the book … the most interesting and moving parts of the entire manuscript,” and that pre-publication disclosure of this material would cut into value or sales of the book

Are Book Summaries Legal?
Are Book Summaries Legal?

Frequently Asked Questions

Are book summaries websites legal?

According to “Fair Use” and what lawyers say it is legal to run a website with book summaries. Websites like getAbstract, blinkist, or 1minutebook. The main thing you have to remember, that your book summaries must be as unique as possible and do not contain huge chunks of text from the original book.

Are book summaries apps legal?

The answer is the same as with book summaries’ websites.

Is it legal to review a book on YouTube

Book reviews are often welcomed by authors and publishers, especially if they are positive. But even if it’s a negative review, as long as you’re not sharing the full contents of the book or narrating the audio version of the book, then you are fine.

You will often find YouTuber’s doing reviews of a book, monetizing the video, and then placing an affiliate link in the description and this is fine as long as you’re not narrating the book.

If you are in doubt, contact the author or publisher.

Do monetizing book summaries/reviews on YouTube violate any copyright?

If you live in the United States, then you are fine.

The use of short parts of a copyrighted book in the context of a review or commentary about the book is covered by fair use. Of course, it depends on how much of the book you’re using. But just talking about brief passages to illustrate why you’re saying what you have to say about the book is very likely to be found fair use.

Is it legal to make YouTube videos from books?

The answer is, as you probably guessed is similar to ones before.

If you share your opinion i.e. review of the book in your own words, then you are not violating the copyright, but you are not allowed to narrate the book.

Is it illegal to summarize a book?

If you are summarizing books in your own words i.e. describing or/and explaining the subject how you understand it, then it is a safe side, but if you will start to use massive pieces of text from the original book

Can I sell a book summary? Do I need any permission?

If your summary includes your thoughts and is more of a critique or review, you are probably fine, unless you quote/copy more from the original work than you reasonably need to. If you are copying word for word a lot of the material, but just removing what you think is less important to create a summary, you are probably violating the copyright. Sometimes chances are, you are doing something in the middle. In that case, there’s no way to answer your question without examining your summary and the original work. If you decide to seek permission, start with the author or publisher.

Why aren’t summary services blinkist and getAbstract sued for copyright violation?

Patrick Brigger – co-founder of getAbstract is answering.

Copyright issues are indeed very relevant, and more than ever one should respect the ownership of the original content.

getAbstract works with more than 600 publishers to secure the right to summarize their content. We only summarize titles where we have received the right from the publisher and author to do so. So, no stealing 🙂

It could very well be that we are the only summary company that takes this so seriously and treats copyright issues correctly. On our website, you can also see that we display book covers and that we display the publisher organization because we have covered all copyrights.

Can I publish a summary of a book without copyright violation?

Please remember, copyright protects the actual text, not the story concept. So again, if you summarize the book in your own words without “copy & pasting” the text from a book, then you can


Final Thoughts

The more you will “uniquefy” original books’ content and make something “yours” and will not use original books’ text, the more likely you will not be committing the copyright violation.

Want to be on the safe side?

Ask the copyright owner for permission!