Copyright question on unknown author of a writing process

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  • I received a writing process years ago called the "M&M paragraph". I don't remember who gave the presentation, but the handout looked handmade, without any source, and I no longer have it. During my 25 years of teaching, I used the process, but improved and added to it. As a librarian, I am now being asked to present it to my staff. I need to be able to find the originator, but haven't had any luck in doing so. I have asked a list serve and no one has heard of it, but are also requesting it. My questions are:
    Can I present it since I'm not sure where the original idea leaves off and where my improvements come in?
    Can I send it out to others requesting it without knowing the originator?
    How in the world can I find the original?

    The gist is to use a green M&M for the topic sentence, an orange M&M for a major detail, a yellow for a minor detail, and a red for the conclusion sentence. Maybe this will kick-start someone's memory of the idea.

  • I have a hard time seeing what material copyright might protect in this situation. The idea of color-coding the sentences in a paragraph seems to be just that -- an idea that is not subject to copyright. Likewise with the notion of illustrating that technique with M&Ms. The issue would be how much actual expression you took from the handouts. I don't know if, with the passage of years, you will be able to tell how much is you and how much is the original presentor, but the issue is copying expression, not appropriating the underlying ideas.

    Even with regard to protected expression, it seems likely that using the material to train your library staff would qualify as fair use. You would have to decide regarding the four fair use factors for yourself, of course, but assuming there is no market for the original and your use is educational, you have a firm foundation for a fair use determination.

    When you ask about "sending out" the presentation, the necessary questions are how and to whom. If there is a copyright protectable interest here, much will depend on exactly what uses you want to make of the protected material. And if you start to make your M&M writing technique public, you also should consider the possibility that the Mars Company might object to your use of their trademark.
  • I agree with KSmith that there does not seem to be an issue of copyright in your use of M&M's for a K-12 lesson plan. In fact, a cursory search on the Web retrieved numerous examples of M&M-based lesson plans posted to various curriculum web sites. Indeed, M&M's appear to be a popular tool to reinforce concepts in Math and Science! For a more authoritiatve search, perhaps you could try searching the ERIC database, which goes back at least the 25 years you've been using the M&M idea.

    In my humble, non-legal opinion, plagiarism is the only concern because you know that you are consciously using another person's work and, in some fashion, passing it on as your own. If you in good faith have attempted to reserach the original source of the idea, and at least acknowledge that there is another source ('Original source unknown'), you will have 'done the right thing'.
  • Thank you. I need to point out that I've never passed this technique on as my own - I have always said that I received it from another but don't know where it came from. Others requesting it for their schools have been told the same. I've never written it down to pass along, but if I stated that it was from an unknown source, would that suffice? It is such an easy, yet effective technique, that I'd hate to refuse it to anyone. Also, it was entitled M&M paragraph on the original handout. I can't change it to Candy paragraph because it's not mine to change, but other candies with those colors could be used. (FYI - you can order the M&M brand candies in quantities of just certain colors from their website!)

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