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

Robbo sez, "The Cambridge Digital Library has posted Sir Issac Newton's notebook which he used as an undergraduate at Trinity College in the 1660's. It can be viewed, page by page, in its entirety and is a fantastic glimpse into the scribbling and doodling thought processes of the man."

Sadly, these images are licensed under CC noncommercial, which means that Cambridge is asserting a copyright over these ancient manuscripts. UK law does make some provision for asserting a copyright in photos of public domain works, though to do so certainly runs contrary to the ethic of scholarship that the Cambridge name evokes.

However, readers in the USA should know that these images are not in copyright there, and they could be downloaded and reused in any way, in keeping with the principle of a robust public domain.

Given that I live in the UK, I have not included any images from the manuscript here.

The argument for asserting copyrights in public domain works is that the public interest is best served by taking public money to acquire and maintain national cultural treasures, then selling access to them, and using the money to reduce the amount that the public pays for future operations.

I understand and reject that argument. A real public domain in national treasures allows for a much broader range of uses and reproductions than the limited, noncommercial, no-derivatives license permits, and these uses would benefit our public life.

I applaud the Cambridge Library's initiative in making its works available to the public, and in adopting CC licenses, but I wish they would adopt a programme of making Britain's ancient treasures truly free.

Update: I've been giving this more thought; here's something I just posted to the comments:

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.

Trinity College Notebook by Isaac Newton

(Thanks, Robbo!)