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Alex Reese
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Experience:  Experienced in intellectual property law
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Are fairly simple (elementary school) math problems copyrightable?A

Resolved Question:

Are fairly simple (elementary school) math problems copyrightable?

A textbook company is claiming that I infringed their copyrights on elementary math problems, even though my worksheet questions were the result of independent creation.

The math problems are not word problems and contain no graphics. Can fairly simple problems be copyrighted or do they fall under the "truth" category which cannot be copyrighted?

Some of the types of questions are:
1. Simple math problems - 3 + 4 = ? 9 + ? + 3 = 15
2. Number sense problems - 80 is less than or greater than 800
3. Number series problems - 5 7 9 11 13 ?
4. Number analogies problems - 3 is to 4 as 6 is to ?

Can these questions be copyrighted in the first place?

Thank you for your help.
Submitted: 1 year ago.
Category: Intellectual Property Law
Expert:  Alex Reese replied 1 year ago.

alex reese :

hello

alex reese :

while an individual problem would not be copyrightable, and collection of problems could be. The same principle applies to a cookbook with recipes.

alex reese :

If you "copied" a substantial number of such questions then that could be infringement

alex reese :

the more creative the questions are, the greater the protection, whereas generic problems would have at best minimal protection (i.e. only protected from exact copying)

alex reese :

but in any event, even if the individual building blocks are not copyrightable, when you compile a large number of them in a particular compilation or configuration....that compilation can have some copyright protection

alex reese :

let me know if you need clarification

Customer:

The questions were not copied from the textbook, they were the result of independent creation. That said, it does not preclude a claim of copyright infringement by the textbook company.

Customer:

There are standard formats for these types of questions - used by the textbook company and many others. For example 1 + 2 = ? is the same format as 10 + 5 = ?. In a number series question it can be 1 2 3 4 5 ? or 10 11 12 13 14 ?. The format is not copyrightable and random numbers can be plugged in to the format - even electronically.

Customer:

Can the textbook company claim copyright on these simple types of math problems?

Customer:

One more piece of information... They have a small subset of these types of questions (20 - 40) and I have several hundred. My questions were electronically created (through spreadsheets, plugging in numbers into a format and formula). If there is overlap, it was purely unintentional and not done by copying.

Customer:

As the textbook company was not the original creator of these types of questions, can they have a valid copyright on individual, simple, elementary math type problems or are these questions not copyrightable?

Customer:

Can you also define what you mean by a "collection of problems could be [copyrightable]"? Does that mean that I would have to "copy" a page of their questions or if two or three questions (out of hundreds) overlap (such as theirs 10 + 7 = ? and mine 7 + 10 = ? or 10 + 5 = ?) with their 20ish questions, that would pose an issue?

alex reese :

while there are no bright line rules, the amount (%) of the work that you use matters, as does the % of your work that is comprised of the borrowed material.

alex reese :

also, whether you copy exactly or make changes matters (similarity)

alex reese :

when you copy exactly, infringement is not hard to show and a smaller amount of material being copied may be sufficient

alex reese :

so a page full of questions could be enough if copied exactly, and whether you use that page within a 10-page publication versus a 100-page publication could also matter, but it is a multi-faceted analysis

Customer:

Again, the questions were not "copied." There is a simple format (like a + b = ? or a b c d e f ? in a number series) and numbers are plugged in to that format given a rule. Given the range of numbers that can be used at the elementary level (1-10, 1-20), there is bound to be overlap even with independent creation - such as theirs 3 + 10 = ? and mine 10 + 3 = ? or even 3 + 10 = ?. Even if a very small subset of the questions were exact or similar (they are claiming maybe 5-10% of the total out of hundreds), that does not mean they were "copied".

Customer:

My underlying question, which I am not sure has been answered, can the textbook company copyright questions such as 3 + 10 = ? and number series questions such as 2 4 6 8 10 ? such that no other person who has had access to their materials has a right to use these questions - even if they were not "copied" from their materials.

Customer:

The textbook company is not the creator of these types of questions, they, too, are simply using types of questions used by many others. There is a format and a rule and then numbers are plugged into the format based on that rule. Then there are multiple choice answers underneath. There is very little, if any, "creativity" in this process.

Customer:

Can the textbook company say I don't have the right to use questions that are similar to their simple math problems (such as 2 4 6 8 10 ?) due to copyright infringement, or are these individual questions not copyrightable in the first place?

Alex Reese :

independent creation cannot result in copyright infringement because that requires actual copying

Alex Reese :

you can use similar questions, copyright will only protect the exact questions from copying on a larger scale, like a whole set of questions being exactly the same.

Alex Reese :

the individual questions are not copyrightable unless they are very creative but even then one question would not be enough, they would have to show that a lot of questions were copied

Alex Reese :

the less creativity in the work, the less copyright protection...but even the most generic material could be infringed when it is copied exactly in large amounts

Alex Reese :

however, if you are creating a book based on another book and changing numbers/letters here and there, then you are certainly going down the "copying" road and it will simply be a question of degree.

Alex Reese, Lawyer
Satisfied Customers: 2949
Experience: Experienced in intellectual property law
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