I recently read a blog entry about students getting good information when a teacher says, “Go look it up.”

The post author has a dictionary web site. While looking around the site, I took a quick glance at the terms of service. The license for the dictionary content included this phrase,

You will not use, copy, adapt, modify, prepare derivative works based upon, distribute, …

This limitation seems at least odd, and probably is downright silly. Nobody owns the words of a dictionary nor does the dictionary own their meanings. How can a dictionary publisher rationally oppose reuse of the words? The words’ value is only determined when someone does derivative remixing. Absolutely NO LOSS to the publisher occurs when the words are used.

I think I understand that the site owners want control over the specific display of the words, but clearly, the words and their meanings are MINE as much as theirs. YOU AND I have the right to use the words and meanings whenever and wherever we want.

Published dictionaries all seem to take unreasonable control over the content of their work. In each case, the words derive from language usage which is a “common good.” Those words have simply been collected by the editors and publishers of the dictionary from the expressions of others. The definitions compile a sense of usage by authors and “the public” from which the meaning derives. Dictionary publishers, editors, etc. cannot possibly, with any clear logic, claim to own the copyright of the words or their definitions, and yet, and they do. Amazing.

Below is a selection of the terms of service/use applied at several online dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster: “All rights reserved. No part of the work embodied in Merriam-Webster’s pages on the World Wide Web and covered by the copyrights hereon may be reproduced or copied in any form or by any means”

http://www.merriam-webster.com/info/copyright.htm

Dictionary.com: “You will not modify, publish, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale, create derivative works, or in any way exploit, any of the content, in whole or in part, found on the Site.”

http://dictionary.reference.com/

Cambridge University Press – Cambridge.org: “Material contained in this website may not otherwise be copied, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part without our prior written consent. In particular it must not be reproduced or exploited for commercial gain. All other rights are reserved and users must seek our permission before making any other use of material contained in this website”

http://www.cambridge.org/policy/termsofuse/

Wordnik: “You will not use, copy, adapt, modify, prepare derivative works based upon, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast or otherwise exploit the Site, Services or Content, except as expressly permitted in these Terms of Service. No licenses or rights are granted to you by implication or otherwise under any intellectual property rights owned or controlled by Wordnik or its licensors, except for the licenses and rights expressly granted in these Terms of Service.

http://www.wordnik.com/terms

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