Cambridge digital library posts scan of Newton's Trinity College notebook, claims copyright over scans


48 Responses to “Cambridge digital library posts scan of Newton's Trinity College notebook, claims copyright over scans”

  1. Warren_Terra says:

    As information, the text of his notebooks surely belongs in the public domain. But as art, do the images belong in the public domain? Should the Mona Lisa be in the public domain, for purposes of reproduction? What about Guernica? And is the scanning itself a creative act worthy of copyright, much as a photograph can be copyrighted?

    • Cory Doctorow says:

      Well, in the case of the Mona Lisa, it most assuredly is in the public domain. Picasso’s heirs still hold copyright in Guernica.

      Practically everywhere (but not the UK), “photographs” are not copyrightable — “creative photographs” are. A photoreproduction of a public domain work — or a noncopyrightable work — is not copyrightable.

      • robdobbs says:

        So Richard Prince’s photograph of the cowboy is not protected in the UK?

        • Stephen Rice says:

          It’s the other way around (the UK’s totally fine with sweat of brow copyright) but in most places that have heard of WIPO the moment it says ” the artist began rephotographing them, using a repertoire of strategies (such as blurring, cropping, and enlarging) to intensify their original artifice.” copyright probably attaches.

          I think the clearest case on this was from New York where an art gallery tried to enforce copyright on the photos of its paintings in its catalogue and because those were literally 1:1 copies it didn’t fly.

  2. paul_keller says:

    This does not only run contrary to the ethic of scholarship that the Cambridge name evokes, but also clearly violates the European Commission’s position in this regard (not that Britons seem to be particularily implressed by anything coming out of brussels these days). 

    In its recent recommendation on the digitisation and online accessibility of cultural material and digital preservation, the Commission is making it clear that digital reproductions of public domain works must remain in the public domain:

    …in order to allow wide access to and use of public domain content, it is necessary to ensure that public domain content remains in the public domain once digitised. The use of intrusive watermarks or other visual protection measures on copies of public domain material as a sign of ownership or provenance should be avoided. (recital 13, page 3)

  3. Finnagain says:

    Stay classy, Cambridge. It’d be a darn shame if these ended up on some torrent site.

    Also, who knew Newton took his notes in Greek?

  4. cinerik says:

    Just curious, and not looking to take a side on this – in the instance that public funds (which at present are obviously and sadly limited for such things) are not available for the preservation and digitization of public domain treasures such as these, from where would you suggest funding be sourced?

    • Cory Doctorow says:

      The problem with this framing is that it assumes that increasing commercial exploitation of the public domain by cultural institutions will fill the void left by contracting public spending, but the reverse is true.

      When public institutions reduce their public service in order to supplement their income, they are (obviously) delivering less public value than they would if they made the public’s treasures free.

      The public, then, sees less reason to fund these institutions (because there are fewer ways in which the public receives benefit from them), which means they are more vulnerable to  future cuts.

      So each round of budget cuts results in a new impetus to privatise the collection. Each privatisation of the collection results in more vulnerability to budget cuts.

      And this logic isn’t limited to times of austerity. The drive to fence off digitised versions of the public domain dates to the 90s and the neoliberal period when Labour (in the UK) encouraged cultural institutions to claim copyright in the verbatim copies of their public domain works.

      This is “now more than ever” thinking: in good times, we must shut down the public domain and charge for its use. In bad times, we must do the same.

      Meanwhile, the evidence runs contrary to this agenda. In the US, public data is public — no copyright can be asserted in government documents, and in the US, both the public and business enjoy unfettered access to same. The result is that all the sectors that depend on public data (such as maps) in the US dwarf their UK equivalents, and return more in tax revenue (and jobs, and public benefit) than their UK counterparts, which can only kick off if they can afford to pay to access and use the data.

      If public data is to have a future, it has to make the case to the public that it deserves to be funded. It cannot do that by reducing the utility of public data to the public.

      • I totally agree with your take, and that’s why public institutions have to stop trying to integrate private management practices into their processes.

        During the last 20 years, there has been a concerted effort to make us believe that public institutions should be run as businesses, that they should be profitable. That’s true for cultural institutions, hospitals and so on. And the end result is : they are not public services anymore. Because you can’t provide a cheap, essential service to as many people as possible and stay profitable.

        The same is true with the current debt crisis: who can honestly believe, even for one second, that a developed country can default on its debts in the long term? That’s impossible. But markets want short-term results and they want their debtors to turn a profit, be they from the public or the private sector. And our politicians play along, because they have been conditioned to do so, thanks to their education and the pressure of various vested interests.

        We have to reverse this paradigm shift, otherwise it won’t be long before the few remaining public services get outsourced. Because we’re down to the bone here.

      • Symbiote says:

        I work at a cultural/scientific institution in the UK.  As I understand it, we claim copyright on carefully-made scientific photographs, normal photographs, and almost all the records in our databases.  We make some money licensing these — I’d guess mostly to publishers and commercial researchers.  Academic/charitable researchers get free access, but have to sign an agreement.

        There’s a conflict between the scientists, who want other scientists to cite their work (which is much more likely to happen if the images and databases aren’t copyrighted); and the accountants, who are being told by the government to squeeze as much money as they can from wherever they can find it, since there won’t be any increases in government funding.  Other bits of government are telling us to put all our data on  

        Some of our data is the best of its kind in the world, which is why people are interested in it.  But if we continue restricting access (or not increasing access), other organisations outside the UK will provide “good enough” data for free, and they’ll get the citations and the funding in the future.

    • sigdrifa says:

      *facepalm* was the first thing that came to mind. Every law maker in the world and every entertainment company is going after the “pirates”. I think the lawmakers should start focusing on copyright abuse instead.

      Edit: This was *not* meant as a reply, sorry.

    • sigdrifa says:

      Copyright law still applies, though.

    • gibbon1 says:

      This of course is an example of the Neolibral disease that infect almost everyone’s thinking.  The idea that everything needs to earn it’s keep via a directly levered rent, or a fee.  It’s the idea that the only direct users of a resource that benefit from access and thus should pay.  Sometimes that is true but more often the there is a diffuse group of beneficiaries.  And collection of direct rents is often inefficient.

      • Stephen Rice says:

        I’m with you in hating how we’re going to this model of paying for your bit of the world and not an inch more but as a practical issue if there’s no money to digitise something the fact that digitising it is a Good Thing becomes irrelevant — it’s not getting digitised.

  5. futnuh says:

    What a timely post.  I’ve just burned half a day looking at copyright clearance forms for lowish-res images of a handful of 18th century paintings.  These public domain works of art, held by museums in mainland Europe and the UK, provide crucial context in a short film we’ve edited on the subject of the Eidophusikon, a late 18th-century “virtual reality” experience.   I’d like to make the film, 90% of which is original content, freely available on the Internet.  But I can’t, because these institutions want annual payments to use the images.  When you start answering questions like, “how long will it be on the Internet?”, you know you’re in trouble.

    This cultural friction impacts us in many ways.  In the example above, the film doesn’t get released.  When you go to a cultural history museum, each and every image shown in the print panels of the exhibition have been copyright cleared.   It’s an onerous and expensive task, not only the explicit fees to the “rights holder”, but the salary of the exhibition staff tasked with this mundane job.   I’ve been involved with projects where fully 2 person-years have been expended on securing copyright.  Not choosing the images, mind you, just negotiating the terms and payment.

  6. ecologist says:

    Although I agree completely with the idea that Cambridge has no business claiming copyright of these images, surely including an image in the text of the original post would fall under fair use, in which portions of a copyrighted work can be reproduced as illustration in an article discussing or reviewing the work in question.  Which Cory’s post certainly is.  Yes?

  7. rogerogreen says:

    That should be ‘correct’, above. US fair use is not universal.

  8. kjh says:

    This was covered in techdirt a week or so ago
    Royal Society Claims 1671 Copyright On Newton Letter (Copyright Law Born 29 Years Later)

    The consensus of the article that © copyright 1671 is not valid, being before the advent of UK copyright law.

    • Stephen Rice says:

      Whoever wrote that is just a bit of a silly.

      The easiest answer to a  © copyright 1671 notice is that all of Issac Newton’s copyrights — by the most conservative measure (ie. applying current law) — would be gone by 1797: 70 years after his death. Even if it hadn’t predated copyright as a thing there’s simply nothing left to assert 300 years later.

  9. stumo says:

    I respectfully disagree with Cory. The University of Cambridge Library have spent money preserving this – and many other – works, and arranging the scanning. Allowing commercial use with no fee means that the newspapers will just say “thanks very much” and print it. Why shouldn’t they ask for reasonable fees to recoup their costs, and arrange for more future scanning? Don’t forget this isn’t a “Government Document”, the University of Cambridge isn’t a government owned institution, and Sir Issac wasn’t a government employee at the time it was created. 

    Anyone else could have gone there and paid for their own scan – they didn’t. It would never happen if you didn’t allow the library to recoup some of the cost. It’s now available for non-commercial use planet wide, which is a benefit to the human race. 

    Yes, it would be lovely if everything could be completely free – but we live in the real world; Univiersities in the UK have huge financial pressures at the moment, and Cambridge isn’t immune. This way they get some more income to keep them afloat, and the world gets access to a wonderful image it otherwise wouldn’t. It seems like everyone wins, and I don’t understand your negativity. 

    This is a good thing. The fact that that better things are concievable doesn’t change that. 

    • Cory Doctorow says:

      Cambridge isn’t a government institution, but it is a publicly supported institution and couldn’t exist without public funding; historically, the largest investors in Cambridge are the public, if Cambridge was a business, the major shareholder would be the public.

      No one else could digitise Cambridge’s holdings — holdings acquired with public money for the public interest — because they’re in Cambridge’s cellars, where they are being kept in trust for the public.

      The problem with the “real world” argument is twofold:

      1. It applies regardless of the economic climate: during the boomtime, cultural institutions were told that they could pad their fortunes with fees for access to the public domain; during the downturn, they’re told they must extend their shrinking budget by charging for access to public goods.

      2. It is jingo, not evidence (any time someone asserts that their position reflects “the real world,” this is generally the case). The evidence — from the EU, from the US, from the Exchequer — is that the most profitable use of the public domain is to set it free, so that many, many different businesses can be built atop it, providing jobs and tax revenues and keeping costs as low as possible (for the business’s customers).

      Finally, as I wrote above, the problem of Cambridge’s contracting fortunes won’t be stopped by this tariff. If Cambridge’s governors are making a bet on the future, the smart money is on providing maximum value to the nation from Cambridge’s riches (winning over public support for its ongoing funding); not on squeezing a few extra groats out of the users of public riches held in trust by Cambridge and hoping that this will offset the cuts that come when the public can’t see the case for supporting an institution that has transformed itself into a mere licensor, rather than a bastion of culture.

      If the idea is merely to offset Cambridge’s scanning costs, there are many better and more reliable ways to do this: they could publish a catalogue of available works with estimated scanning costs and take up subscriptions (from the public and industry alike) to digitise these and set them free. This aligns everyone’s incentives very neatly: Cambridge ends up releasing the works best loved by the nation, everyone gets to participate maximally in that public spend, and the way to raise more money isn’t by charging rent on last year’s work, but rather soliciting money for next year’s release.

      After all, the most likely commercial users of these images aren’t newspapers (is the Sun really going to devote an issue to tabloid-sized reproductions of Newton’s long-division practice?) but works of scholarship and textbooks whose principle customers are public institutions. So the public pays to digitise the Newton papers. Then a publisher pays to license these scans. Then a school pays a higher marginal cost to acquire the reproduction so that the publisher can recoup the fee. And in all the interstices: full employment for licensing lawyers, who draw up contracts to paper over the public paying itself for use of its own works.

      • stumo says:

        Public goods? What do you actually mean by that?

        Cambridge have paid for the upkeep of the library, keeping the conditions suitable that these notebooks lasted 350 years (far beyond their design life), and storing millions of different books for the future, and paying experts to catalogue them and help people find what they need. They then paid for expensive scanning equipment, and are going through and accurately scanning some increadibly fragile paper whilst trying to avoid damiging it any more.

        Do you really think they’ll get a significant increase in goodwill from releasing these as public domain, versus the license they have released it in? Will this come anywhere close to the costs incurred? If the income pays for more scans, won’t that lead to more goodwill?

        No, the Sun probably won’t be running the image, but other newspapers did -  Works of scolarship can use it and cite the relevant pages. If they need to reproduce some of the pages rather than link to them, they can apply for terms – and those terms would (I’d hope) be reasonable for scholarly work. If it’s a publisher duplicating Newton’s annotated Principia, to sell worldwide, then yes I think money should be going back to pay for more scans, rather than just going to the publishing company.

        If you want more access than the current, generous license allows – then you should pay for it. The “public” now have access to something they didn’t before – most of whom have never  paid tax in the UK (and therefore contributed in some small way to Cambridge’s upkeep).

        Cambridge will be funded based on its current accademic output, not its past riches in a library. It’s a university, not a muesum. 

        I have a lot of respect for the stance you’ve taken on copyright with your own personal works Cory, but your model doesn’t work for everyone. At the moment it seems rather like you’re being given a gift and complaining that it’s the wrong colour.

        • Jack Acme says:

          A couple of quibbles. Cambridge has only been holding the notebook since 1872, when the 5th Earl of Portsmouth donated it. Also, the notebook is obviously made with acid-free paper, which accounts for its longevity. Aside from keeping it out of direct sunlight and dry Cambridge didn’t have to do much to maintain the manuscript. Lastly, though the PNG files displayed are clearly high-resolution, the resolutions offered if you wish to purchase an image are only 150 to 300 dpi.

          • 3oo dots PER INCH, think about that, it’s enough to capture even details of the texture of the paper. I would not say ‘only’ unless Mr. Newton wrote really, really, really tiny.

  10. manveruppd says:

    Well said Cory, thank you.

  11. peregrinus says:

    How sad this is.

    And frankly, embarrassing.  The thinnest of excuses for monetising its collection.  What else do they have?  Are they like the Vatican, holding lots of papers that people have forgotten about?

    Universities should promulgate ideas and incentivise creative thinking and endeavour.  Anything they do (or don’t do) that dimishes that subtracts from their contribution to an egalitarian, informed and enriched society.

    So I’m annoyed at this, totally.

    • stumo says:

      @boingboing-318c4c36b0c054314e8d000afb1a007d:disqus - you’re welcome to go along and have a look at what they have. Genuinely, they’ll grant a “reader” ticket to anyone who’s interested, and you can look through their paper records (they’ve computerized the catalogue from 1978 onwards, plus any stuff from before then that’s still regularly borrowed – and they’re working on getting the rest done) and ask for stuff to be brought up, and if you want to make a copy of something they can arrange for it to be done.
      The thing I suspect you don’t realize is the sheer scale of the problem. The public access part of the library is a maze, with millions of books, and the less borrowed stuff is stored away even more densely in basements and towers and extra wings. As a copyright library they have a copy of pretty much every book published in the UK in the last 400 odd years, as well as PhD thesies from anyone who’s been awareded a doctorate from Cambridge.

      The older books such as these notebooks need to be treated with care to make sure they’ll last another 350 years, so you can’t just bung it on a photocopier.

      If you put in the time to go through their records, find something that is of interest, and arrange to get it scanned in a way that won’t damage it (and pay the experts doing so for their time) then you can talk about the rights it gets released under. If you don’t have the time or money to do so, why should they be doing it for free?

      • peregrinus says:

        With respect, you’re off my mark.  The point is they have a repository of culturally beneficial material, and they have every opportunity to make it available to the public for the world’s benefit.

        I’d like to live in a world where elite publically funded institutions set the tone and do this.

        • stumo says:

          I guess my point is that they *have* just made it available to the public for the world’s benefit. They just want to be sure that, having spent money doing so, they see a share of any profit made on it. I don’t think this is unreasonable, but I guess I have a different take on it.

          • Antinous / Moderator says:

            They just want to be sure that, having spent money doing so, they see a share of any profit made on it.

            There’s a difference between charging for a service and claiming ownership. You’re supporting rent-seeking behavior.

    • Creative Commons Non-Commercial allows one:

      to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work

      to Remix — to adapt the work

      Just not make money on it.. You can’t print/publish the scans and make money off of these.

      Otherwise they have a much more restrictive copyright, the original may be in the public domain but the actual scans are the copyright of the person/organization that did the work.

  12. I love the fact that they saw fit to reproduce the blank pages as well.

  13. sriha says:

    Since I’m not a publisher or trying to make money from these images — I’m just a member of “general public” — it seems that CC 3.0 NonCommercial works fine for me. It gives me the right to Share (including put on a non-commercial blog) and Remix the images.  And it doesn’t negate Fair Use or other more permissive rights, correct?

    Sure, making these completely free would have been nice, but if I had to choose over having access to them today for free under CC NonCommercial vs. them not having been photographed at all, or them being photographed and “completely free” 10 years from now when enough “catalogue subscriptions” have been collected, or them only available via some paid Cambridge Press or some other publisher’s book, I’ll take CC NonCommercial any day.

  14. mguffin says:

    So the black vein of humour here is that Newton admitted he achieved what he did “standing on the shoulders of giants” – a phrase that we now know (in my case courtesy of Kirby Ferguson’s excellent Everythingisaremix films)  is conveniently self-proving, since he nicked it from Bernard of Chartres who said it several centuries earlier.
    Cambridge’s neo-liberal short-termism, nicely anatomised by Cory in the post and comments, seems to be asserting their right to charge a ground rent for anyone who might in their turn like to stand on this particularly small and specific patch of Newton’s own giant shoulders. Anyone else smelling the irony…?

  15. Hamish Grant says:

    Could a researcher not go into the library, photograph the notebook’s pages, and then release those photographs to the public domain themselves?  

    Edit: I realize they are kept “in the cellar” but that doesn’t mean they are forbidden to be looked at by researchers. Just that they are kept from the greasy fingers of the general public.

    • stumo says:

      Researchers can certainly go in there and ask to see stuff – I’m not sure about the rules for photography though; whenever I’ve wanted a copy of something I’ve got them to do it, as they don’t want to damage books using a standard photocopier, and I presume there are risks of flash photography damaging books (as well as being disruptive to other library users). But they’re generally accommodating to stuff within reason – if you work at a library, you do it because of a love of knowledge, and want to share that knowledge as much as possible.

      • Jack Acme says:

        Additional quibbles. I worked for many years in Harvard’s Widener Library and I knew many staff members who would not fit the idealized image of knowledge-lover, etc.. I’d also add that since Cambridge has already gone to the trouble of creating beautiful digitizations of  this particular item it would be nice if they would simply allow one to download them.

  16. Ipo says:

    Cory Doctorow’s  always is THE voice of reason. 
    I would like to see him in a position where he makes law. 

  17. and BoingBoing and Disqus use the following CC license
    Where not otherwise specified, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons License permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution. Boing Boing is a trademark of Happy Mutants LLC in the United States and other countries.

    What is the difference!

    • Mister44 says:

      Well – one is a public institution, performing tasks with public money.

      The other is a private  corporation, performing tasks with private money.

      • Stephen Rice says:

        Meh, people can stretch this one. I think I drew the line at requesting microbes from publicly funded research labs.

        I’ll put my hands up and say that I’m very much ok with Cambridge digitising and republishing Issac Newton’s university notebooks under a creative commons licence but the main difference is that BoingBoing isn’t a scanned copy of work that was performed 300 years ago and they’re actually putting their own work under a creative commons licence.

  18. Mister44 says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but does a “CC noncommercial” license means that one can use it for anything but making money with it? I guess I don’t see that as “bad” in this case – but mainly because I can’t see where one would make money on it.  Maybe I am not looking at it from the right angle.

    • What if I wanted to incorporate these scans of Newton’s drawings into a work of art, a post-apocalyptic world where some secret clue to pre-cataclysm knowledge is encrypted among his diagrams. I could use them but only to play D&D and stuff or trade around informally. I would be inhibited from spreading them on anything too big with a commercial ad network, or gods forbid, creating a comic book with photos ripped from these scans and attempting to charge for the resulting historically documented storyline — you would thus likely never see nor get to enjoy this work. I would likely feel forced to discard it and invent something less risky to attempt create something potentially commercial with. As an artist with a mouth to feed (my own) I certainly don’t want to pour tons of work into a cool idea, only to find out that I can’t legally make any money off of it even if there were people breaking down my door with interest — would I?

      Now imagine all of the projects that don’t happen and you will never see because things like this don’t present a prudent or favourable angle to be reused by a modern artist.

      Thus are we divorced from our own heritage in all but the most meaningless and trivial ways.

  19. Andrew Katz says:

    A photograph does not automatically attract copyright in the UK – although the bar for protection is pretty low. Somewhat irrationally, it’s assumed that photocopies do not attract copyright and photographs do.

    It’s a question of whether there is any originality in the resulting work. If yes, there is copyright protection. If no, not. So someone merely has to ask Trinity whether the digital images are as faithful as possible to the original. It’s going be difficult for them to answer otherwise than “yes”. For clarity, have they taken steps to enhance or repair any of the text or diagrams in the images? If no, then they will find it very difficult to argue that there is any originality in the digitised images, and that they therefore attract copyright.

  20. dmer says:

    I work at a museum in the US and have successfully convinced the folks here to stop charging licensing fees for use of our scans in academic or non-profit publications, but there is still an entrenched notion that there is rightful revenue to be had from commercial users. I don’t agree with that, but it seems to be accepted wisdom in the museum world.
    What I find much more interesting is the concept of attaching copyright to a digital image that is intentionally made to reproduce the original as closely as possible. Even in the photography of three dimensional objects where no small amount of skill goes into lighting and positioning, the goal of most museum photography is an accurate reproduction – so by definition not a new creative input.
    Some judicial decisions in the US seem to back that up, but there is no clear direction. Like so much of copyright law as it relates to cultural heritage and history institutions,  this is a vague and murky place.
    Oddly enough there is some argument to be made that attaching copyright to images we make of collection materials may help lower barriers to their free use at least for orphan works and items that are probably in the public domain, but it’s not certain. Currently we can only say – we have no copyright information for the original it may be public domain, it may be orphan works, or their may be some unknown copyright holder, use at your own risk. If we can attach copyright to images we make then we can attach, for example a CC license granting free and open use. Convoluted, yes and also not likely to pass legal review anytime soon, but a good example of how screwed up copyright law makes it hard to do the right thing.

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