Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wants to Use Dictionary Definitions

Dear Rich: I'm writing a conceptual/experimental book that will use about 200-300 definitions, quoted verbatim, from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. The book intends to address a commonly asked question in literary works (especially poetry), "But what does it mean?" The definition of each word of my original poem in the book will be lifted from the dictionary. Merriam-Webster reserves all rights, but am I not using the dictionary exactly as they intended (okay, it's a little extreme). Isn't this a parody? I would, of course, give the complete source of the definitions --- that's part of the concept.  Much as we love your attitude and your project, we don't believe Merriam-Webster's attorneys would feel the same way about your legal conclusions,
Fair Use? Using a copyrighted work for a transformative purpose may provide a fair use defense. But we're not clear why you believe your use is transformative. It seems like you're using the definition for the intended purpose -- to explain the meaning of each word. Similarly, just because your project is mocking the idea of literary comprehensibility, doesn't make it a parody. A parody is a work that ridicules another, usually well-known work, by imitating it in a comic way. Typically, the work that is borrowed -- in your case, the dictionary definitions -- is the work that's being parodied. That doesn't seem to be the case here. If you were only using one or two definitions, you might be able to argue fair use (or the merger doctrine). But considering the large number of borrowed definitions, we're not seeing a safe defense. Of course, as we always note in our windups, MW's lawyers may not see or care about your project, so you could always consider forgetting about us and our square opinions!