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Some online dictionaries prohibit such copying of their content. Some examples below (not meant to be an exhaustive list, and any bolding for emphasis is mine) :

First, from the Stack Exchange terms of service:

"...any and all content...that you provide to the public Network ...is perpetually and irrevocably licensed to Stack Overflow on a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive basis pursuant to Creative Commons licensing terms (CC BY-SA 4.0), and you grant Stack Overflow the perpetual and irrevocable right and license to access, use, process, copy, distribute, export, display and to commercially exploit such Subscriber Content, even if such Subscriber Content has been contributed and subsequently removed by you..."

Collins:

Your use of the Site and its contents grants no rights to You in relation to Our intellectual property rights including, without limitation, trade marks, logos, graphics, photographs, animations, videos and text or the intellectual property of third parties in the Site and its contents. None of the Content or User Content may be downloaded, copied, reproduced, republished, edited, posted, transmitted, stored, commercially exploited, sold or distributed without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. Subject to the above You may download insubstantial extracts from the Site on any single computer for personal, non-commercial home use only, provided that no more than one copy of any information is made and all copyright and proprietary notices are kept intact.

Merriam-Webster:

you may "reproduce... content...only for your personal, non-commercial use. If you are a teacher, scholar or student, you may copy reasonable portions of the content...for lesson plans, interactive whiteboards, reports, dissertations, presentations, school newspapers and for similar nonprofit educational purposes to the extent permitted by applicable law. ... If you want to reproduce or use content ... in any manner other than as described above, including for purposes of developing or training AI or to conduct computer analysis, you will need Merriam-Webster's permission."

Longman

The reproduction, redistribution, modification or publication of any part of the Services without the express written consent of Pearson and/or its licensors is strictly prohibited.

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  • 4
    Why limit this question about pasting definitions to copyright considerations? I fear that the question, in its current form, will provoke amateurish attempts at interpreting the law, while there is a much broader issue behind it (that we are likely to be more competent to discuss): when is it good, useful, helpful, illuminating to quote dictionary definitions on this site (regardless of the legality of doing so)? Many contributors to this site seem to think of quoting dictionaries as some sort of a ritual that must be performed in every answer, even when it doesn't add anything to it.
    – jsw29
    Mar 22 at 16:36
  • @jsw29 Yes, there are other ways, besides upvotes, to give a questioner confidence that an answer isn't something concocted by a fevered brain. Google Books previews, for example, show words in the wild. If a dozen or more books use a word in the way the answer says it can be used, that should suffice. No dictionary cut-and-paste required. We should assume that everyone who comes here knows how to use a dictionary.
    – TimR
    Mar 22 at 18:56
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    If you start pulling at that thread, all of our SE sites will unravel.
    – Robusto
    Mar 22 at 21:44
  • @Robusto: The moth-holes of link rot are clearly better than having the sweater unravel, no? Besides, there may be technology solutions to tracking down the current location of the content and replacing the rotted link in situ.
    – TimR
    Mar 23 at 12:29
  • @herisson Are you saying that quotation does not come under fair use? Why do you say so? Apr 2 at 20:32
  • 2
    @Araucaria-Him: Quotation may come under fair use, but fair use is only a defense to an allegation of copyright violation. Violation of a website's terms of service would be a breach of contract: even if you are allowed to copy the dictionary entry under copyright law, you might be forbidden to copy it under the terms of a contract between you and the dictionary maker.
    – herisson
    Apr 2 at 22:10
  • The legality of quoting from dictionaries has been asked on Law.SE. Apr 27 at 6:42
  • This is not a question in the first place... what kind of answer are you looking for?
    – sundowner
    Apr 28 at 13:18
  • @sundowner: It is tagged as discussion.
    – TimR
    Apr 28 at 19:13
  • In my understanding, usually it is supposed to be a question even then. It should be should we avoid copy-pasting...because ... for example.
    – sundowner
    Apr 28 at 22:34

5 Answers 5

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The rule is to assume fair use, which allows users to (legally) post quotes without permission from the copyright holder. If it's not really fair use (and I think it is, as part of a scholarly work), the copyright holder (or their agent) can submit a DMCA claim through the Contact Us form, which is then handled by staff. We—as moderators and not copyright lawyers and especially not lawyers representing either "side"—don't touch copyright stuff (only plagiarism—a matter of academic integrity, not law).

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    Your understanding of fair use is yours. There are other opinions: findlaw.com/smallbusiness/business-operations/… or guides.nyu.edu/fairuse
    – TimR
    Mar 22 at 16:25
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    I am not asking moderators to take any action. I am advising against doing it, and my followup would be certainly not to REQUIRE such copying.
    – TimR
    Mar 22 at 16:30
  • 6
    @TimR And that's exactly why the lawyers SE are paying should be the ones to determine what looks like fair use and what should be removed—not you or me. On the other hand, my understanding of SE policy is exactly what staff have been telling us for over a decade.
    – Laurel Mod
    Mar 22 at 16:31
  • 1
    I am not asking for it to be removed. That's up to SE. I'm advising against it (people can do want they want) but I'm certainly against REQUIRING answers to do it. copyrightlaws.com/sharing-republishing-online-content
    – TimR
    Mar 22 at 16:34
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    @TimR But it's not up to you to give advice, and your question should be a question along the lines of "Should we...?" You can then give your opinion in an answer.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Mar 22 at 18:46
  • @AndrewLeach I'm not giving SE advice. I'm addressing the forum members, in whose forum a "rule" has been devised that certain kinds of answers must cut and paste a dictionary entry (not simply link to it) or risk having the answer be deleted.
    – TimR
    Mar 22 at 18:48
  • Side note: since SE is a commercial enterprise, it cannot IMO claim "nonprofit scholarly/educational" status. But let's leave that as a side note since the line between higher education and for-profit corporation is becoming blurred, and I'd rather not go down that rabbit hole. The main gist of my post is to advise against having a rule that requires cutting and pasting of dictionary entries.
    – TimR
    Mar 22 at 18:49
  • @TimR I was directly addressing your comment "I'm advising against it," which I didn't think was addressed to SE.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Mar 22 at 18:56
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    @AndrewLeach It was addressed to anyone and everyone here who thinks pasting dictionary entries verbatim, even from dictionaries whose terms expressly forbid it, is something this forum should be requiring of people when they are answering certain kinds of questions.
    – TimR
    Mar 22 at 19:04
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    @TimR: "Terms of service" are not binding on anyone who hasn't signed them. Visiting a website is not signing a contract. The problem is link rot: if you only link and not quote, your answer will become useless once the site changes its structure, which the commercial sites always do. Mar 22 at 21:46
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    Some terms of service have words to this effect: By continuing to use this website you are agreeing to these terms. Are you certain those words are legally vapid?
    – TimR
    Mar 23 at 11:50
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    @TimR: Yes, absolutely! Imagine if some website could make you 'accept' any terms it liked, just by sending the page content to your computer. Mar 25 at 2:20
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    @Cerberus-ReinstateMonica You seem not to understand the implications of the word continuing. You cannot continue to use something you have never used. The clearly entailed meaning is that if you've visited the site at least once, and want to use it again, you must abide by the terms. It's possible you've just downloaded the Terms and are reading them offline, but for most people they're reading the words while visiting.
    – TimR
    Mar 25 at 11:49
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    @TimR: The people behind the site would like you to abide by some document, but you incur no obligation to do by by simply receiving the content of a page that they send to you, nor if you receive a second or even third page. Requesting or receiving page content is not a legal act binding you to obey their command, no more so than looking at a sign in the street, not even if you continue to look. If you watch a video in a cinema saying "by continuing to view this video you agree to send us €100 in an envelope", you do not incur an obligation: you laugh. Apr 2 at 4:13
  • @Cerberus-ReinstateMonica "abide by" and "continue to look" and "watch a video" have nothing whatsoever to do with the act of reposting content from a site whose terms prohibit doing so.
    – TimR
    Apr 2 at 11:11
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The problem is link rot: if you only link and not quote, your answer will become useless once the site changes its structure, which the commercial sites always do.

"Terms of service" are not binding on anyone who hasn't signed them. Visiting a website is not signing a contract.

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    Easily addressed. "See Merriam-Webster polysemy, n."
    – TimR
    Mar 23 at 11:44
  • These resources are telling users not to repost their content. If they are able to exist only by virtue of ad revenue, not to send visitors their way is to undermine them, and they may cease to exist or become paywalled. If the link may rot, don't include it. But don't steal their content and make it so that no one needs to visit their website to get it.
    – TimR
    Mar 23 at 11:45
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    @TimR: It doesn't matter what they "tell" a visitor (not to mention that nobody ever sees such a message). They choose to send their content to any computer who visits their web address; that is their own choice. Receiving the freely sent content has nothing whatsoever to do with crime (theft), and I think that is a rather infelicitous comparison. Mar 23 at 15:10
  • The misappropriation of intellectual property is "theft".
    – TimR
    Mar 23 at 15:30
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    @TimR: It is not. Besides, so-called intellectual property is inalienable, one cannot appropriate it by copying text. And of course there is fair use. And all the other things that are mentioned here. Mar 23 at 16:16
  • I am willing to leave all of you to your individual opinions and to take your own actions as you see fit when it comes to reposting content from other websites. Just don't require other people to copy and paste such content if they want to participate on this site. You don't consider my stance a fair-minded one? I should be able to refer to that content without having to repost it.
    – TimR
    Mar 23 at 16:31
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    @TimR: Is it really a good answer if it doesn't contain the information? It is like writing an academic article but putting the real information in an end note. P.S. I really cannot fathom why anyone would pity a big company and its profits. It is not a person. It is not sympathetic. Mar 23 at 16:54
  • The position can be principled and not based on pity. And/or it could be enlightened self-interest, not wanting to see these sites pay-walled.
    – TimR
    Mar 23 at 18:54
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    As for whether it's a good answer... I think the whole point of an upvoting/downvoting site is corroboration, not reward. If the site upvotes an answer, it's corroboration that it is a "right" answer. If they downvote it, it's an indicator that it's a wrong answer. I don't think stuff that is common knowledge should require cutting and pasting from "an authority" and an authority could be referenced when needed. There's no need to paste in content.
    – TimR
    Mar 23 at 19:04
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    @TimR: The goal of Stack Exchange is to be a compendium of knowledge. Rotten links are in opposition to that goal. Empty answers which contain no knowledge but only a reference aren't very valuable either. Mar 23 at 20:14
  • You seem to be more interested in polemic than in discussion. I said give an answer and reference an authority to back it up, not simply point at some external site.
    – TimR
    Mar 23 at 20:39
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    @TimR: If there is a substantial answer that carries its own value, then, OK. But I thought the answers we were talking about here were the ones where someone merely posts one or two sentences of his own with a reference. In any case, it is always better to add a quotation if you refer to something. Mar 24 at 1:07
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Technically, you may be right. Practically, legal questions are decided in court, and it's unlikely anyone will be taken to court over this. Morally, each user can make a personal judgement whether it is equivalent to theft to copy a portion of a dictionary entry when giving an answer on this site.

As Laurel said, copyright law in the United States has the exception of fair use.

In terms of contract law, as far as I can tell you are correct that such terms of service may theoretically be enforceable against users of these sites. Abruzzi 2009 discusses this and raises concerns about it, but notes

to this point the law reporters have recorded very few instances in which content purveyors have litigated to hold users to the terms of website TOU - and only one case in which the content purveyor sued over a term that restricted fair use of a content.

(page 138, "Copyright, Free Expression, and the Enforceability of Personal Use-Only and Other Use-Restrictive Online Terms of Use", by Bradley F. Abruzzi, 2009)

However, Abruzzi also discusses some potential legal defenses, so the law here may not be completely one-sided. (Also, I don't know how this field has evolved since 2009.)

In addition, my understanding is that (unlike copyright infringement) breach of contract as a cause of action would only allow for civil, not criminal remedies, and it's hard to imagine that the damages involved in the case of users of this website would be sufficient to motivate any legal proceedings. (I'm not sure, but I also suspect that it would be harder to get punitive damages for breach of contract than it is to get statutory damages for copyright infringement.)

Setting aside questions of law, an answer that consists solely of a verbatim quotation of a dictionary entry is never ideal: it's better to give answers that include useful explanations in your own words.

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    None of this relates to quotation, does it? People have been quoting dictionaries in published works since the nineteenth century! Apr 2 at 20:34
  • @Araucaria-Him: If you do not have any contract with the author of a work, then you are free to use exact quotes within the bounds of fair use. However, it may be possible for the user of a dictionary to enter and then be bound by a contract that prohibits the copying of any amount of material for non-personal/commercial use (which is a more restrictive condition than fair use). It has never been usual for the buyer of a physical book to sign a contract not to copy anything out of the book, so historically this kind of situation did not arise with print dictionaries
    – herisson
    Apr 2 at 22:08
  • But that is not the case for these dictionaries either. There is no wall where you have to accept the terms before you can access the dictionaries. And furthermore, if any dictionary prevented users from quoting them as an authority on the meaning/pronunciation/etymology of an item, that dictionary would sink without trace! The whole purpose of a dictionary is to exist as an authority on these issues. And the published guidance from universities for their students and staff-- who may publish with profit-making entities--is that fair use is allowed! Apr 2 at 22:12
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    @Araucaria-Him: Abruzzi discusses the first concern that you raised on page 112: "The far more common method of presentation is to post the terms on a separate web page, with a moderately descriptive link ("Legal," "Terms of Use," "Terms of Service," "Copyright Notice"). This "browsewrap" format does not require the user to make any click-through gesture of assent to the terms [...] Courts were initially reluctant to hold users to TOU presented in this fashion. [...] More recently cases have turned away from the strict notice-and-assent requirements endorsed by the Specht court."
    – herisson
    Apr 2 at 22:16
  • @Araucaria-Him: As I indicated in this answer, I think the concerns raised by TimR are more theoretical than practical. While dictionary publishers don't actually seem to have taken substantive steps to prevent ordinary users from copying material from online dictionary entries, they might argue that they are legally entitled to do so.
    – herisson
    Apr 2 at 22:21
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Dictionary definitions have been included in commercial published material as quotes for hundreds of years. Dictionaries would have millions of cases to pursue dating back to the nineteenth century if this were actually the case for printed books!

Quotation is not grounds for allegations of copyright infringement.

Here is the text from advisory material from the University of York relating to quotation and copyright. The bold is from the original and NOT added by me:

Quoting from a published work (text, images or AV) does not infringe copyright, providing your use is "fair dealing" and you acknowledge the original author or creator.

In UK law, there is no limit to the length of your quote, although you must be able to justify why you needed to reproduce the amount that you chose in order to illustrate your point (which may take the form of agreement or disagreement with the original author!). It's arguably "unfair" to rely on the Quotation defence when reproducing material which could have market value in its own right, such as an epigram or artistic work.

When you are writing for publication, your publisher may set a word limit for quotes, unless you have the rights-holder's permission. They may also ask you to obtain full clearance to reproduce any third party images in your work. There's no international consensus on what counts as "fair dealing", hence your publisher is taking a cautious approach.

Two more points in addition to these. Firstly, the Oxford English Dictionary have a similar blurb on their site. However, they also provide explicit guidance on how to cite them properly. A point made about other dictionaries by @CollenV in her post, but well worth repeating here. Secondly, it is an open secret that virtually all modern dictionaries are rife with definitions plagiarised from the original research and scholarship of other dictionaries, probably with the exception of OED.


Ref:
University of York (updated: Feb 13 2024) Copyright a practical Guide Available at: https://subjectguides.york.ac.uk/copyright/permission(Accessed 02 April 2024).

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    The concern that TimR raises is specific to works published via a medium that contains terms of service, so it indeed does not apply to the vast majority of printed books. (A small number of books, such as advanced reader copies, might conceivably be distributed only to recipients who sign a contract restricting what they do with the book and its contents.) Fair dealing or fair use is a defense to copyright infringement, but does not necessarily protect against a lawsuit for breach of contract.
    – herisson
    Apr 2 at 22:25
  • @herrison Unless you know otherwise what I suspect would be the case would be that a substantive use of material which would normally be considered fair use would cause the online publisher to ask the reproducer to remove that material , and that under such circumstances they would be able to refer to the terms of service in oder to enforce their right to do so. This would not be the same as trying to sue someone for using it in the first place. But nowhere do I see any evidence that they could enforce this over a quotation. In any case ... Apr 2 at 22:32
  • In this case, I think action for breach of contract is not plausible because even if the contract was violated, I imagine the damages would be minimal or undemonstrable. But I'm not a legal expert!
    – herisson
    Apr 2 at 22:33
  • ... there is no evidence that the quotation of published material is yet legally prohibitable by such terms. And to try to write this into law as an individual on SE (not you, OP) is unconscionably immoral. As things currently sand this is not an established fact of law, and it is not desirable for it to become so in a democracy (or elsewhere!). The corralling of people into treating this as law by users here is the moral equivalent of campaigning for it to become law when it isn't. Apr 2 at 22:41
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    Contract law allows for many situations where it isn't generally prohibited to do some action, but it is possible to take legal action if a particular party to the contract takes that action (compare non-disclosure agreements). TimR is saying that this might be the situation in regard to copying material out of online dictionaries that purport to bind their users to terms of service that are highly restrictive about how content may be used. Abruzzi goes over the question of how enforceable this kind of thing is and seems to find that unfortunately, it isn't clearly unenforceable in principle.
    – herisson
    Apr 2 at 22:45
  • @herisson Yes, but that's miles away from it being enforceable in principle. And that's not what TimR is saying. He's saying that people shouldn't be quoting from the online versions of dictionaries. That's an altogether different thing. Apr 2 at 23:05
  • I'm saying that people shouldn't be cutting and pasting and reposting entire dictionary entries when the terms of service of the online dictionary prohibit it. I make an appeal to your better angels, or if they are on holiday, to your sense of enlightened self-interest, regarding sites that do not have a paywall and rely upon visitors and ad-revenue to fund themselves. As for the link-rot issue, it is a red herring when the dictionary uses perma-links.
    – TimR
    Apr 13 at 13:05
  • Let me stir up an ant's nest. Why does CGEL cost so much? Why not scan it into a PDF and just post it somewhere on the internet?
    – TimR
    Apr 13 at 13:15
  • @TimR CGEL is much, much smaller than any of the large dictionaries produced by professional bodies of plagiarisers who basically regurgitate the definitions of earlier dictionaries and have never redone the essential footwork of all the people who put together, for example OED or Johnson's Dictionary. It represents the combined work of hundreds of scholars including sixteen coauthors or primary contributors and a board of thirteen consultants plus scholarly input from linguists such as David Crystal and so. It took up thirteen years of Rodney Huddleston's professional career. And yet ... Apr 13 at 15:02
  • @TimR And yet, do they mind people quoting them in short or in long quotations either in writing or on the web? That would be absolutely ridiculous. In fact, they actually count the number of times they're quoted. The more the better! And are they quoted here on Stack Exchange? Of course they are. I have included long quotations - whole pages not little iddly diddly entries in my posts here. Do they mind? NO! Now, the day dictionaries are no longer quotablefor the purposes of giving authoritative definitions is the day dictionaries die. This will have been aided by you! Apr 13 at 15:07
  • @TimR People aren't going to stop consulting online plagiarism collectors (aka online dictionaries) just because they see a snippet of an entry for one word on EL&U. That would be ridiculous. That would be like not reading a novel because you saw a one-word quote, or not going to see a doctor because you heard part of their consultation with another patient. The suggestion is so ridiculous that I can't even be bothered to finish my Apr 13 at 15:12
  • The authors who produced CGEL move ahead in their careers via reputation, so of course they don't mind being quoted and cited, whereas non-paywalled online dictionaries must attract visitors and show them ads or they have no source of revenue. I doubt the authors would care much if bootleg copies of CGEL were available on the internet in PDF format; it's the university press that would feel the pain and seek redress. Not all lexicographers are plagiarists and some dictionaries are of much higher quality than others. I'd not like to see the good ones all become paywalled.
    – TimR
    Apr 14 at 11:39
  • @TimR I don't buy your opinion that lexicographers give a stuff whether someone quotes one of their entries. I don't believe it for a ilisecond. I think your opinion is misinformed. That last comment about poor old university presses feeling pain or going out of business is utterly laughable. University presses out of anyone rely the most on their work being quoted and relied upon in order to drive traffic to their site and also sell their products to libraries universities and individuals. Your tenuous position is won't survive the slightest scrutiny. Apr 14 at 13:30
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    @TimR For goodness sake, Tim, please stop conflating quoting and referencing part of an entry for a word with offering bootleg copies of entire works on the web for free. It really doesn't paint you in a good light and it is a waste of the valuable time of other users and readers here. None of the people who you keep saying you are defending would approve of such behaviour. Surely you can understand the there's a difference between the two? Apr 14 at 14:31
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    @TimR No, not at all. Stop playing fast and loose with the truth. The simple argument is that it is a healthy part of academic public life to quote from academic sources including dictionaries, and far from doing them any harm it enhances their good standing and increases the number of people who regard them as authoritative. It is GOOD BEHAVIOUR. The point about dictionaries being full of plagiarism is to point out just how far off the mark your complaints are. If such arguments were made by the dictionaries themselves, they would be arch hypocrites. Apr 14 at 15:19
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I certainly agree that we should not knowingly violate the terms of service of a website. However, I don't agree that dictionary sites forbid this type of usage.

For example on The Free Dictionary site (which is a aggregation of several dictionaries) the page with several definitions of the word fleecy links to a page with proper citations for each source of each definition listed in APA, Chicago, MLA and PLOS styles.

I don't know why they would provide that if the expectation is that someone could not use a definition to support an answer, so long as it includes the proper citation. Their terms of service states:

  1. No Duplication or Redistribution: Material contained in the Content may not be duplicated or redistributed without the prior written consent of Farlex, except that one print copy of search output is permitted for use within Your home, and that search output may be stored temporarily in electronic media for editing or reformatting and subsequent printing of one print copy of search output for internal use.

Merriam-Webster provides citation advice under their "help" section:

Here are three ways you might cite the entry for hacker in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, if you accessed it on May 8, 2011. "hacker." Merriam-Webster.com. 2011. https://www.merriam-webster.com (8 May 2011).

MLA Style:

"hacker." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2011.

Web. 8 May 2011.

APA Style:

hacker. 2011. In Merriam-Webster.com.

Retrieved May 8, 2011, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hacker

I don't know why they would bother if their expectation was that their terms of service would restrict us from quoting their dictionary, so I am comfortable with including properly attributed quotes in answers unless the site makes it explicitly clear that is not allowed (like they have done with scraping the site for the purposes of training an AI model).

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  • Farlex authorizes home use. Their citation is a hyperlink not a copy-paste. M-W again has you linking to their site, not pasting in their content into another website. That is a critical distinction that needs to be understood. The supposed problem of "link rot" has been used as a justification for copy-paste. It is not a justification, especially when the dictionary uses permalinks.
    – TimR
    Mar 27 at 20:57
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    @TimR It's a citation, not a link back to their site, otherwise it would not include the date it was retrieved from that site. If you're just pasting a link, you aren't retrieving anything. Even M-W expects that their definitions will be quoted, and so the date it was retrieved is important just in case it was changed in the meantime.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 27 at 20:58
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    M-W are not authorizing copy-paste of an entire entry into a website. They are showing how you should cite the definition if your use is one of the explicitly authorized uses. The conclusion you've drawn from their advice on proper citation format is unwarranted.
    – TimR
    Mar 27 at 21:05
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    @TimR "Use of Content: You may display, reproduce, print or download content, including images, from the Services only for your personal, non-commercial use." My answers are personal and non-commercial. I quote and attribute properly to separate the content I'm contributing from content I do not own the license to. I am not concerned at all that M-W's legal department is going to send me a cease and desist.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 27 at 21:12
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    Your answers are not "only for your personal" use. Nothing reposted to a public site meets that standard. And when the public site's terms of use say you're giving them the right to exploit commercially what you have posted, things get very messy indeed. You lack of concern is irrelevant.
    – TimR
    Mar 27 at 21:18

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