Box Relatives

Thoughts about puzzles, math, coding, and miscellaneous

Is crossword blogging illegal?

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A short while back, a pseudonymous blogger started a blog covering the CrosSynergy crossword. It did the usual things a crossword blog did — it displayed the completed solution grid along with the clues and answers. In fact, it looked conspicuously like the LAT crossword blog looks on Sundays. About a week ago, the blogger was contacted by CrosSynergy, claiming that the site violated their copyright. They even went so far as to file a DMCA complaint with Google. The blogger immediately deleted the blog to avoid any further complications.

Well, as you’ve probably guessed, the pseudonymous blogger in question was me.

I won’t try to argue that what I was doing was legal. I’m not a copyright lawyer, and copyright law is complicated. I think it’s especially complicated for crosswords, because several things are certainly not copyrightable about a crossword — the empty grid itself, the individual clues … you could probably argue that the solution grid is copyrightable, and maybe the theme. And of course, the empty grid and clues together. But again, I don’t know enough about the issue to argue either way. I had just assumed it was okay because so many other sites were doing something similar.

I don’t mind having taken down the blog. It wasn’t getting many hits anyway. But what really hurts is that as a result of this, Google has disabled my AdSense account, as they now view me as a copyright violator. This includes removing all ads from my totally unrelated YouTube videos. I suppose I should be thankful that they didn’t delete my account entirely or bring criminal charges against me, but I don’t see it that way.

Anyway, I guess this is a word of warning. If you are planning on starting a crossword blog, you may want to check with the owners of the copyright of the crossword to make sure it’s okay. Most of them seem all right with it, but if you run into someone who’s not, you can potentially get yourself into a lot of trouble.

15 Comments

  1. Wow! I am thinking of some choice non-copyrightable words right now.

    I guess the problem is the complete listing of clues? Because CS doesn’t seem to have a problem with the popular crossword blog that posts a solution image every day.

    • Given that Amy posts the puzzles in their entirety on her forum, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that she has explicit permission to post the solution grids on her blog. I don’t know that for sure, but that’s my guess.

  2. for realz? That’s just so weird!!

  3. I thought CS constructors retained the rights to their puzzles. When I print them out, they always have “(c) [Constructor's Name]” on them.

  4. this whole thing just makes me sad. well, except for the part where you started a crossword blog under a pseudonym and then didn’t tell anybody about it until it got shut down. that makes me laugh.

    • Ha! Yeah, the blog wasn’t much to be proud of, so I didn’t tell anyone. Eventually it might have been, who knows.

  5. I humbly suggest that there is a massive difference between what my site does and what your “blogs” (I know you have other anonymous blogs serving up answer grids and lists of clues for other puzzles) do. I have original content! (As does every post at Rex Parker, 7 of 8 posts a week at LA Crossword Confidential, etc.) A review that discusses copyrighted material typically is permitted to use excerpts of said material under the fair use doctrine. I wouldn’t dream of pasting in a listing of every single clue for the puzzles I blog, even though it would surely jack up my page views.

    Putting up sites that seemingly exist solely to draw search-engine traffic and generate ad revenue…I don’t know, Alex. I thought you were more creative than that. Quite frankly, I’m astonished to learn that the anonymous blogger is actually someone who’s been an active part of the crossword community. I feel a little bit stabbed in the back.

    • Well, my inspiration was L.A. Crossword Confidential, which does in fact list all clues and answers for all blogged puzzles. As does XwordInfo, of course. In those cases, does adding original content mean you can list all the clues and answers for a crossword? Like I said, I don’t know anything about copyright law.

      Maybe sites like crosswordheaven.com and crosswordtracker.com are okay because they don’t list all the relevant crossword info in one place, instead spreading them around on several pages? Would that be a better way to troll for search engine traffic? Or maybe they’re not okay, either, I don’t know.

      Sorry you feel stabbed in the back, Amy. That was obviously never my intent.

      • I made Crossword Tracker and found this discussion interesting. My site came to being after I had discussions about seeing the same answers in crosswords rapidly (an answer I hadn’t seen before and it would show up three times in a week across different puzzles).

        After a while, I got interested enough to compile a database and run the statistics and found that indeed answers are very frequently shared close together, but in general they are shared quite a bit (clues are much more unique, though often just subtly different). I really enjoyed being able to see all clues pointing to an answer and all answers pointing to a clue, so instead of doing it all manually on my laptop I posted it online. There are some more advanced features, like the search and related answers/clues, but fundamentally it’s to track the relationship between clues and answers.

        I was careful to not reproduce any puzzles. You cannot do a crossword on Crossword Tracker. It will say which puzzle a clue was from (well, at least the last 20 citations), but there’s not a way to find all the content from a given puzzle on a given day. Or even get the position, you just know a clue/answer appeared in a puzzle on a day. I also take care to filter out self-referential clues that make no sense outside of the puzzle context, so there’s not actually full puzzle data in the database for most puzzles even if I was giving out location data (which I don’t, nor do I actually keep in the DB).

        It’s a shame they shut you down. They should embrace enthusiasts as that’s what keeps crosswords going. I doubt they would have noticed a drop in sales from people doing puzzles from your site, but don’t doubt people could run across your site and realize they haven’t done a puzzle in a while and get back into it.

        • Thanks for the note, Jon. I’m still interested in the copyright aspect of all of this, and your site is a great example, since it doesn’t really contain any original content — just the way it is presented is original. That’s probably good enough. Maybe the problem with my site was that the presentation wasn’t quite original enough.

          I suppose people *could* have solved the crosswords on my site, but it wouldn’t have been any easier than doing the NYT from, say, http://www.nytcrossword.com/.

          • I see my site as a remix. You can’t learn what you can from my site from the original sources and you can’t learn what you can from the original sources on my site (so in lawyer talk that means it’s transformative). Considering the number of crossword dictionaries out there, if my site was somehow in print form I don’t think there would be a question.

            I’d say nytcrossword.com is on shaky ground and it may just be bad luck that you got hassled and he hasn’t. That said, I don’t think either of you should be hassled, you’re both good for the crossword business.

            Also, if you have any ideas for what could be done with a large corpus of crossword clues/answers, I’m all ears. I have had an idea for a while to rank puzzle originality based on the uniqueness of the clues/answers of a puzzle, but have thus far shied away from doing anything on a per-puzzle basis. I should talk to some constructors and see what would help them out.

  6. I’m not a big fan of including all the clues, but LACC provides so much original content as well as education for beginning solvers. (Angela did a ton of work getting all the Crosswordese 101 posts indexed, and it’s a great resource.) Crossword Corner includes all or most of the clues, but again, discusses the clues. NYT Crossword in Gothic lists all clues in a hidden spot, but provides original content. XWordInfo has an official relationship with the New York Times puzzle—Jim Horne gets the puzzle files directly from the Times, and the Times and Will Shortz benefit by having a neat tool they wouldn’t have without Jim’s efforts. (Don’t know anything about those clue database sites you cited, but they seem slightly akin to crossword dictionaries. Not sure whether they run afoul of copyright law by taking their material from different sources.)

    Google “fair use” and read up on what it entails. I think it’s incumbent on everyone who operates a website to be familiar with intellectual property/copyright law, both to avoid overstepping and to protect one’s own work.

    • Good advice. I’d add that XwordInfo didn’t always get its puzzles from the Times. At first, Jim was just reposting entire puzzles on his site without permission. Then they offered him a job!

      I didn’t want this to devolve into a discussion of copyright law because I don’t know anything about it. But it sounds like the varying positions expressed here are:

      1. You can reproduce copyrighted content in its entirety on your site as long as you add original content. So you could type out Camus’ “The Stranger” on your site as long as you analyzed each paragraph.

      2. You can type out every word of “The Stranger” on your site as long as you remix it somehow, say by alphabetizing the book.

      3. (2) is only okay if you add original content, like word counts.

      Is “The Stranger” still subject to copyright? Man, I don’t know anything about this stuff. I’m in way over my head.

      (2) is what I guess my position was, if I had such a position. In other words, the copyrighted content is the blank puzzle grid with clues, and that by re-organizing it into a new format, it would become okay to print. But maybe (1) is the correct answer, or maybe it’s none of the above. I dunno. In any case, my dalliance with such things is over.

  7. P.S. It bears noting that L.A. Crossword Confidential carries no advertising. Neither does Crossword Fiend or Rex Parker. (LA Times Crossword Corner does have ads in the sidebar.)

  8. “wow, awesome article post.Really thank you! Really Cool.”

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