Thursday, September 17, 2009

Punjabi iPhone Dictionary App

Dear Rich: I recently found myself working on a project that involved an iPhone application that would function as a Punjabi language dictionary. I retrieved this dictionary by re-typing it into a database without the permission of the university that holds the copyright. The dictionary is also available online, however the copyright footer only mentions the software company that made the dictionary front-end, not the actual university. What is the law regarding international copyright of dictionaries? Can you really copyright a list of facts? Can I submit my iPhone Application to the App Store without any troubles? Would it make a difference if my app went out to the Dictionary's website and searched for a word rather than keeping a local database in my app? Will I have to retrieve a license from the university and pay them a certain share? Wow, that's a lot of questions. Let's just summarize by saying that if the university has a copyright in the content of the  Punjabi dictionary, your work is infringing. With the exception of GNU licensable dictionaries such as Wiktionary, dictionaries are typically protected by two types of copyright: a copyright for the original text expression in the definitions, and a compilation copyright for the collection of definitions. 
Facts. Facts. It's true that copyright doesn't protect facts but dictionary publishers would argue that writing dictionary definitions requires skill and unique phrasing. Even in those cases, when a definition is too short, or doesn't involve sufficient creativity, or is in the public domain, such definitions can still be protected as a group under the compilation copyright (and we assume that "compiling" a dictionary is different than having it "complied" -- see our cover above). As for linking to the online dictionary, that's a tough call. Like inlining or framing, it may be considered a copyright infringement. The university may also have a claim against you for unfair competition or similar statutes which make it illegal to pass off your work as that of someone else's. The real problem is more of a practical one -- whether you want a self contained app (that can also run on an iPod Touch without wifi) or one that is link-dependent.  As for international copyright rules, if the copyright is valid in a country that is a party to an international treaty, it can be enforced against you in the U.S. 
iPhones and Database Retrieval. According to the Dear Rich Staff If you don't have the rights to your content and you post it as an iPhone app, then Apple -- assuming it learns of the infringement --  would likely remove it and it would be buried in the iPhone App Graveyard