Copyright Abuse

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Most of the issues surrounding copyright are related to what bloggers and webmasters can and cannot reproduce on their own sites, but, open access aside, what about corporate copyright abuse. In this guest blog post Peter Lewis of the Open University in England gives us his opinion of copyright abuse in the commercial world.

I first came across the problem of copyright abuse by numerous commercial image databanks, in 2004. At the time, I was writing my book on the Tay Bridge disaster (Tempus 2004). My reanalysis of the disaster – a kind of cold case investigation – involved systematic examination of the many high quality photos taken for the Official Inquiry of 1880. We asked Dundee City Library and St Andrews University Library to make high resolution scans, which my university paid for in the usual way. When I produced my book, however, St Andrews protested that I had wrongly used their images, despite the fact the images dated from 1879 and earlier and were clearly out-of-copyright. They eventually backed down but they, and many others, seem to think that if they posses an old image, they possess the copyright forever.

This doctrine was once used by some university libraries and is known as perpetual copyright. It was abolished in the Victorian period, but seems to have re-appeared! Worse still, modern image companies such as Getty and the UK’s Science Museum/NRM possess public domain images which they have scanned
from original periodicals such as the Illustrated London News, and claim new copyright in those images. I protested to the Science Museum about their policy, and was told that "it was too difficult to remove the copyright watermark for one or two images"!

Another example occurred more recently when we were designing new covers for one of our teaching blocks. It was a book about intellectual property, and the designer had used an old image from a US
Patent which he had found in a commercial image library. They wanted to charge £600 (about $1200). I pointed out to the designer that the image was in the public domain and could be downloaded for free from the US Patent Office website, and so we saved the money. Many designers and others are apparently totally unaware of this scam, and will happily pay large sums for public domain images when they can be obtained for free. One irony in this case was that the quality of the US Patent Office image was much better than that offered commercially.

I think this issue is very important for anyone researching historical events, or indeed, carrying out any other work where they may be open to copyright abuse.

- Guest blog post by Peter Lewis. Lewis is interested in product and process failures in engineering and has researched and written widely on the subject. He is Chair of ‘Design and Manufacture in Polymers’ and Chair of ‘Forensic Engineering’ at the Open University, England. He is actively reanalysing other historic disasters and accidents, using his cold case approach to engineering failures. His book on the Shipton rail accident (near Oxford, England) will be published by Tempus in February 2008, and he is currently looking at the Staplehurst crash of 1865 in which author Charles Dickens was involved.

For advice on finding copyright free images for use in your blog or website, check out David Bradley’s article on credit and copyright on Sciencebase. Lewis points out that Wikipeda has a growing archive of pictures and photos in the public domain, and you personally only need scan in an original to be able to use it. Copyright abuse has even been tried with patents and other intellectual property. Patents, of course, are all in the public domain. And it is worth knowing that all US Government material (text, photos etc) are automatically free of copyright thanks to the US Constitution.

In additional correspondence Lewis told me that copyright can be abused by any commercial interest, especially against smaller enterprises such as authors and users. Indeed, there have been many examples of large companies trying to abuse the system. Examples which come to mind include car manufacturer British Leyland, which tried to gain copyright on its car exhaust systems to prevent cheap exhaust pipes being made for their vehicles. Similarly, to manufacturer Lego tried to apply copyright law to their famous plastic bricks. Both companies were defeated in English law through the 1988 Act of Parliament.

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