In this question:

Why is meat red?

the only existing answer, with 9 upvotes, was deleted yesterday by one of our moderates, I believe with good intent. I only noticed this because I was scanning Unanswered list.

While I respect the removal of plagerized content, in this case:

  • The original poster did cite the source at the bottom—while that is not the best way to present the source of the information, it is at least not intellectually dishonest.
  • The source document is a USDA document, which is public domain information in the US. No one is being harmed by this use.
  • The information is correct, accurate and to the point (probably why there were no competing answers, and why it was upvoted)

I suggest therefore that the answer be undeleted, and edited to put the citation information at the top, clearly and correctly identified, with the quoted text in Markdown quote to make it clear it is not original work, and the answer restored. I am happy to do the edit if the answer is restored.

2 Answers 2


I tend to agree with you, especially since the content is copied from a US government agency and is public domain, as far as I can tell. I've undeleted it - edit away!

Aaronut, if you disagree, happy to discuss - seeing a user accumulate so much rep from copying and pasting does kind of rub me the wrong way - but I think it is nonetheless acceptable use of copied content, if properly cited.

  • Thank you... going to edit.
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Mar 12, 2013 at 0:01
  • 1
    For anyone who is curious, by US law, works from the US government are not copyrightable: Sect. 105. Subject matter of copyright: United States Government works Copyright protection under this title [17 USCS Sects. 101 et seq.] is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise. ----- Source for previous, code hosted at Cornell: law.cornell.edu/copyright/copyright.act.chapt1a.html
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Mar 12, 2013 at 0:14
  • Yup! But be careful: if content was created by a government contractor it may be copyrighted, and a lot of government agencies publish plenty of things that were produced by contractors.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Mar 12, 2013 at 0:18
  • Well, that could be very tricky. I am guessing a copyright laywer would point out that in works for hire (which a contracted document would be), the copyright is owned by the hiring entity, which would be the US government--but since they cannot create copyright, there is none. But I guess Meta SA is not the place to discuss the wierdness of US intellectual propery law.... :-)
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Mar 12, 2013 at 0:20
  • Yeah, for details, ask lawyers, but the short summary is that this really does happen - I worked for a NASA contractor which wrote, owned, and copyrighted plenty of code, and sometimes delivered it to NASA under various licenses.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Mar 12, 2013 at 0:22
  • Too true... you have to read those government contracts carefully! Or write your own, I guess. I never retained any copyright on work for the US government, myself, sadly. As if a now-20 year old database for HUD would have any value! I don't even remember what it did.
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Mar 12, 2013 at 0:24
  • Just wanted to add this little tidbit: Works of the US federal govt are indeed generally in the public domain, but be wary of state govt works. They do not necessarily fall under the same license. I'm not a lawyer, but I deal with a lot of government-authored material for my day job.
    – Preston
    Mar 12, 2013 at 3:50

I'm fine with the undelete, but only because the page actually says that it is public domain and therefore very unambiguously not copyrightable. Almost any other content license could pose concerns, since it might be incompatible with our own CC-wiki. The notable exception is Wikipedia which has the same license.

Since we're on the subject, I want to point out a few things in the broader context:

  1. If an entire answer is just regurgitated copypasta, it adds no value whatsoever to our site because the same information (literally) could be found with a Google search. Summarizing, consolidating, or elaborating on information from other sources has intrinsic value; copying it does not. We should downvote and/or delete these answers not simply because of any legal risk but also (maybe primarily) because it doesn't improve the internet to have two search results where one is exclusively quoted material from the other.

  2. Allowing these types of answers to be upvoted, unless relegated to unusual or extreme situations, opens the door to rep farming. In this case the source was reliable (the USDA) but the same user has also (re)posted several answers lifted from eHow, wikiHow, etc. If we know that an answer was plagiarized and do nothing about it, then we undermine the system that's designed to make Stack Exchange sites reasonably trustworthy. This would not be the first time in Seasoned Advice's history where we've been forced to delete plagiarized answers simply because they were being mindlessly upvoted.

  3. Sometimes it's better for a question to have no answers than to have one or several poor answers with upvotes. That is because the former category appear in the unanswered questions list and are more frequent candidates for bounties and other incentives. Moreover, a highly-upvoted answer, even if it is not original, can discourage others from contributing answers that are original and potentially just as good/relevant. It's not just a matter of "punishing" plagiarists, we also want to encourage others to write their own answers and improve the site.

  4. A citation is not an excuse to present someone else's content as your own. I am not a lawyer, but the issue has been discussed several times on several sites, and the general consensus is that (a) the material must be quoted, not merely presented above/below/around a citation, and (b) the quoted portion should be no more than a few sentences long; several paragraphs is generally not acceptable. This still doesn't guarantee that it's OK, but at least it's semi-defensible as fair use.

Bottom line, we are not lawyers and do not need or want the risk of a copyright dispute, nor do we want to reward or continue to collect lazy, thoughtless word vomit ripped off from other sites on the internet. Not that we should start a witch hunt, obviously, but we should be just as aggressive about removing content duplicated from other sites as we are about removing content duplicated from our own site. Otherwise we will quickly lose all credibility with the expert audience that we're trying to attract.

  • Right, I'm fine with being very strict, and I don't feel very good about this one, but it's strictly speaking okay, so I felt that we couldn't really justify deleting it. I'd love to see other answers on that question, and like you, I'll keep an eye out for further things like this that aren't okay.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Mar 12, 2013 at 4:05
  • P.S. In the interests of showing that we can still have good answers, despite ones like this, I've posted my attempt at one.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Mar 12, 2013 at 4:45
  • 3
    Given A's comments--which I think should be made more diplomatic given that A is a diamond moderator (what if that OP came and read that she spewed "regurgitated copypasta")--I am wondering if I was incorrect in suggesting that the answer be undeleted now. I think A's arguments 3 and 4 have merit. I would have added a new answer for this reason, but Jefromi beat me to it.
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Mar 12, 2013 at 14:11
  • @SAJ14SAJ: I never really ran on the "diplomatic" platform. ;) But nevertheless, if you want to point out which specific parts are bothering you, I'll see what I can do to soften the blow.
    – Aaronut
    Mar 13, 2013 at 0:08
  • 3
    @aa I think the two phrases that are the most colorfully provocative are the previously mentioned "regurgitated copypasta" and "lazy, thoughtless word vomit ripped off from other sites." With respect, as a diamond moderator, your comments and posts have disproportionate weight. Whether you "ran on" diplomacy or not, I think it is nonetheless warranted.
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Mar 13, 2013 at 0:24

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