we dream, we create, we change, we love

Passive Resistance

leave a comment »

Copyright Notices & Disclaimers

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, by photostat, microfilm, xerography, or any other means, or incorporated into any information retrieval system, electronic or mechanical, without the written permission of the copyright owner.

              —[unnamed copyright owner]

I mean neither disrespect nor violation by quoting that disclaimer, which technically is part of the book that contains it, hence is probably a copyright notice that is covered by itself. But it could have come from any of thousands of different books whether technically oriented or pure fiction. And yes, every now and then we might see the active voice used, saying something like, “You may not reproduce any part of this book in any form . . . .” But passive voice is the most common practice here, and is quite acceptable, no less preferable than the active voice equivalent.

The particular book that included the preceding copyright notice followed with a separate disclaimer to its own claim —

Copyright is not claimed in any material secured from official U.S. Government sources.

              —[unnamed copyright owner]

And since that disclaimer itself was not material secured from any official U.S. Government source, then it too is technically covered by the overall copyright notice. Again, no disrespect or violation intended here. We’re interested not in stealing their content, rather in observing how they follow the commonplace, almost universal practice of expressing their disclaimer in the passive voice. Versus saying something such as, “The publisher does not claim copyright in any material secured from official U.S. Government sources.”

Focus on Character of the Content vs Action of the Writer or Reader

I’ll come back around to this point when I come to something I find in most style guides about proper use of passive voice to indicate focus on an attribute of the content matter, rather than focus on an action taken with respect to that attribute. Here, a note to that point, given the sample copyright notice and sample disclaimer given above. Yes, the publisher wishes to advise against the action of reproducing the content, but the claim is a claim about an essential characteristic of the content that carries legal force: the copyright. Although the active voice “You may not reproduce . . . ” seems to say the same thing, one could conceivably bar reproduction without necessarily claiming the condition of the content as copyrighted. The passive voice for the copyright notice properly places the focus on the nature of the material, with the actions then being disallowed because of that nature.

Ditto the disclaimer. With maybe a bit more followthrough discussion than I care to delve into at this stage. This being a continuing post, and this page being one I plan to return to often, I’ll return to this disclaimer at some point to raise some other nuances of using the passive vs active for such a disclaimer.

Broad vs Limited Scope

Quite often, attempting to express a claim or warning or disclaimer in the active voice will restrict the scope of the statement far more than intended, unless the writer expands out the statement far more than would be necessary by use of the passive voice.

A good example here is the Internal Revenue Manual, for which the IRM Style Guide gave us the quote leading off the first page of this post. The Internal Revenue Manual is primarily aimed at the IRS agent, providing a guide for application of tax law. However, no part of the IRM is supposed to carry any legal weight; for that, all parties – the IRS agent, the taxpayers, the courts, even the lawyers dealing with it all – are supposed to turn to the law, the regulations, the court cases and other official documents that do carry authoritative weight. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. But publish a guide such as the IRM is, and make it public as the IRM properly ought be, and sooner or later someone is going to expect that something used as a guide for applying tax law should provide some authoritative content about the tax law itself, for instance something that could be relied upon in an adversarial setting. So any good IRM section contains a disclaimer to the effect that its content is meant solely to guide practice by IRS agents, no more than that. But word that disclaimer in the active voice, “You [the agent] may not rely on this content beyond its intended scope . . .,” and the field is left wide open for reliance by anyone else for any other purpose. And try to cover every single conceivable situation through the active voice, and suddenly the disclaimer section of each IRM chapter becomes an overly-lengthy dissertation that invites readers to find holes instead of succinctly expressing the basic essence. Which is best stated in the passive voice, as is common to all such disclaimers: “This content provides only procedural guidelines and does not constitute authoritative guidance on any matter of law. . ., etc.” or words to that effect. Applicable to any and all users, without needing to identify each, as would be necessary in the use of the active voice.


Examples of the use of active voice in a copyright notice or disclaimer are rare and more often than not are mixed in with heavy use of the passive voice —

  • U.S. GPO Style Manual — The equivalent of a copyright notice at the beginning of the U.S. government’s own official style guide includes an active voice statement, “The Superintendent of Documents of the U.S. Government Printing Office requests that…“, nor is the request that follows in the passive voice. A passive equivalent might start out with the request, placing that as the subject on which the action of the passive verb would then apply, something along the lines of “Any printed edition should be labeled clearly as a copy of the authentic work…” which would be acceptable in the tone conventional to such notices, but in this instance would become stilted if the authority of the GPO superintendent were to be brought back into the picture. But lest the rare presence of active voice in such a notice seems by its occurrence in the GPO Style Guide as indicative of any governmental exclusive choice of active voice over passive, back up to the beginning of the very same notice, where passive voice is used to state that this “official U.S. Government edition . . . is herein identified . . . .” As contrasted with an active voice version such as “The Superintendent of Documents of the U.S. Government Printing Office herein identifies this official U.S. Government edition . . . .
  • Community Newsletter — The disclaimer given in each edition of my community’s monthly newletter includes several statements in the active voice, for one, “The publisher takes great effort to ensure the accuracy of information contained in this newsletter.” Two of statements in the active voice would be misidentified as passive-voice sentences by too many editors, for one, “All articles submitted to [this] newsletter are subject to editing for clarity and length.” But as is quite common, the newletter’s disclaimer does use the passive voice, in this instance leading off with a compound of two passively voiced clauses, “This newsletter and any information contained herein are intended for general informational purposes only and [this newsletter] should not be construed as legal, financial or medical advice.
  • Listen to the Warm, poetry by Rod McKuen — using the passive voice when the main focus of the action is properly directed at the book, “No part of this book may be reproduced . . .,” but then shifting to the active voice when proper to do so, “. . .except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review . . . .” McKuen’s copyright notice then shifts back to passive voice for a concluding statement that can be converted to active voice only by violating the style rule on brevity by adding unnecessary words to identify the obvious actor and another style rule by introducing awkward wording not usually adopted in commonly spoken language that would express the same thing, all unnecessary as long as we understand the real rule of permitting the passive voice when it is proper to do so, “Particular emphasis is laid on broadcasting, readings and performance.

Otherwise, among the almost universal application of passive voice for copyright notices and disclaimers are the following from my own bookshelves —

  • Handbook of Treatment for Eating Disorders, 2nd edition, edited by David M. Garner and Paul E. Garfinkel — carries the basic straightforward copyright notice expressed in the passive voice, “No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, microfilming, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the Publisher.” Pray do tell, what is thought to be weak style or evil writing by the anti-passive absolutists? Or what is thought not be be plain English in such a statement? And why try to force such a disclaimer into active voice just for the sake of a completely passive-free world, when doing so requires the addition of completely unnecessary words that are obvious? Here, as in every single such copyright notice, the passive voice is not merely acceptable, not merely common practice, not merely best practice, but truly ought be understood by any writer, any reader, and editor or publisher and even the most uninformed professor as constituting the right way.
  • Understanding Epilepsy, a brochure such as many commonly available in physicians’ waiting rooms, includes two statements about the brochure itself, as opposed to the subject matter of the brochure. Since the brochure is the primary focus of those two statements, and since the function of each statement is to provide information about that primary focus, use of the passive voice is not only commonplace and natural, not only plain, not only acceptable, but right. First, “This brochure is provided as an educational service by Shire US Inc., manufacturer of Carbatrol[r].” Although that sentence could be flipped to the active voice a la “Shire . . . manufacturer of . . . provides this brochure as an educational service.” But why, when the important point is not the actor Shire, but rather on the educational nature intended of the brochure, which is what places the brochure as the focus, hence properly moved to the subject of the sentence. The second informational sentence of interest here states, “Carbatrol[r] is registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office.” Why force that natural passive into an awkward unnatural active version that would have to unnecessarily repeat obvious information? And what is felt to be weak or not plain about the statement as it stands? Once again, leave the passive alone here!
  • Brainstorms: Epilepsy in Our Words, by Steven C. Schachter, M.D. — contains much of the usual passively voiced prohibition against unauthorized reproduction, but leads its copyright notice with a sentence in the passive voice that I challenge any active voice diehard to produce any better replacement sentence, “This book is protected by copyright.” Plain. Direct. Brief. Succinct. Yet in the passive voice. What’s thought to be weak here? (Oh, and for those who would shorten the entire sentence to simply the copyright symbol and date, do realize that such a mark as is included for every copyrighted book is understood by every reasonable reader to be an abbreviation of the passive sentence. No reasonable reader thinks in the active voice if asked what that copyright symbol means.)

Reserved for Passive

Let’s linger on the copyright page a moment longer. What three words are so commonplace there as to be of interest only when absent?

All rights reserved

Yep. An implied passive voice.

Obvious and plain to every single reader is that those three words are shorthand for the full sentence, “All rights are reserved.”

I’ve read some active voice crusaders who suggest using what they call the “zombie rule,” that if the sentence would still make grammatical sense by adding “by zombies” to the sentence, then the sentence is damned as its stands, no chance for appeal or parole, sent straight to active voice execution. So let’s try that here, “All rights are reserved by zombies.”

Ummm, ok, let’s pretend for just an instant that we can accept absolutely no exceptions, as I’ve seen suggested by more supposed experts than I care to reserve any rights at all for. But ok, for a brief moment, let’s. So the long version would be, “The copyright holder reserves all rights.” I can quarrel with whether that version truly improves on the briefer, “All rights are reserved,” but for this moment let’s pretend we prefer active voice so strongly that we’ll choose that route. Now, do we shorten that to “Reserves all rights”?

Please, no. Just, no. Don’t.

The implied passive – “All rights reserved” – is plain and acceptable and … yes, right. Changing it to any active version would be plainly wrong.


//] - so to speak

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Written by macheide

30 April 2015 at 3:57 pm

Posted in so to speak

Tagged with , ,


Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s