Royal Society Claims 1671 Copyright On Newton Letter (Copyright Law Born 29 Years Later)

from the taking-the-'public'-out-of-public-domain dept

The Royal Society calls itself “a Fellowship of the world’s most eminent scientists and… the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.” Its Fellows and Foreign Members have included Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin, Francis Crick, James Watson and Stephen Hawking.

One of its chief claims to fame is that it has published the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the world?s oldest scientific title, since 1665. At the time, inviting other scientists to scrutinize the results of experiments in this way was a radical move, and it laid the foundations for what became the modern scientific method. And now The Royal Society is opening up the journal’s archive:

its world-famous historical journal archive ? which includes the first ever peer-reviewed scientific journal ? has been made permanently free to access online.

Around 60,000 historical scientific papers are accessible via a fully searchable online archive, with papers published more than 70 years ago now becoming freely available.

Treasures in the archive include Isaac Newton?s first published scientific paper, geological work by a young Charles Darwin, and Benjamin Franklin?s celebrated account of his electrical kite experiment. And nestling amongst these illustrious papers, readers willing to delve a little deeper into the archive may find some undiscovered gems from the dawn of the scientific revolution ? including accounts of monstrous calves, grisly tales of students being struck by lightning, and early experiments on to how to cool drinks “without the Help of Snow, Ice, Haile, Wind or Niter, and That at Any Time of the Year.”

If you take a look at the first of these, say, you notice a curious thing on the first page:

If you can’t see that, it says:

This journal is © 1671 The Royal Society

Now, I knew that The Royal Society was ahead of its time, but claiming copyright in an article published 29 years before the first modern copyright law was passed in England is truly impressive. I wasn’t sure whether this was some little joke on the part of The Royal Society, or whether there might be some obscure 17th century legislation that had been passed giving The Royal Society’s Transactions perpetual copyright (after all, such a thing has been done before in the United Kingdom.)

So I asked the Royal Society what was going on, and this is what they replied: “The copyright line will have been added by JSTOR when they digitised the manuscripts in 1999”. JSTOR hit the headlines earlier this year when charges were filed against Aaron Swartz for allegedly downloading a large number of documents held in JSTOR’s archive. The JSTOR saga continued when Greg Maxwell posted 33GB of its papers to The Pirate Bay, including the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Finally, JSTOR responded by releasing all the public domain materials that it held, including once more the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions.

And that brings me to the second question I had: what exactly did The Royal Society press release mean when it said that the archive “has been made permanently free to access online”? The response: “Papers published in Royal Society journals more than 70 years ago now permanently available to view and download for free via our searchable archive. The content can be reused but we do ask that people acknowledge the Royal Society if they do so.”

That suggests The Royal Society is trying to apply something like a cc-by license. But there’s no formal statement to that effect that I can see anywhere on the site. So I went back to the JSTOR site to look at the FAQ on its release of public domain materials and found this:

Additional uses are allowed, including the ability to download, share, and reuse the content for any non-commercial purpose.

So that seems to be closer to a cc-nc license, which is quite different from a cc-by license.

At the very least, this shows just how complicated licensing can be, even for large institutions like The Royal Society and JSTOR. No wonder that lesser mortals find copyright impossibly complex, and often infringe on it without being aware of the fact ? something that copyright enforcement legislation rarely takes into account.

But this clash of copyright claims raises a larger question: not so much which license should apply to this 17th century journal, but why any license should be necessary at all. These are public domain materials, some from before the time that modern copyright even existed. Why is there any question about applying copyright to digital versions? They are simple scans, not artistic reworkings, so it’s hard to see how anyone ? whether The Royal Society or JSTOR ? has any grounds for claiming copyright.

It’s obviously great news that The Royal Society is opening up its archive, but it would be even better if it made an unequivocal statement ? ideally with JSTOR ? that these public domain materials can be used in any way whatsoever, with no requirements or restrictions.

That, after all, is the implicit bargain of copyright: that materials do enter the public domain once the agreed term of the government-backed monopoly has expired. Sadly, with the constant lengthening of copyright, sometimes retroactively, this part of the deal is increasingly ignored.

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Comments on “Royal Society Claims 1671 Copyright On Newton Letter (Copyright Law Born 29 Years Later)”

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Douglas Schatz says:

I think Mark Rose would argue that the first English copyright law was enacted in 1518. It decreed that only printers approved by The Stationers Company would be allowed to operate in England. The Stationers company had an internal charter that only allowed the original printer of a manuscript to reproduce copies of it. So, in that sense, yes, The Royal Society actually could have had “copy rights” on their journals published in 1671.

However, the actual law that gave The Stationers Company its power was more concerned with the dissemination of anti-Crown propaganda than the illegal reproduction of books. So, in that sense, the “copy rights” they had in 1671 would not be compatible with modern laws.

ScytheNoire (profile) says:

Can we just end this crap already?

I’m so sick of Copyright and Patents. These are corrupt ideas enacted long ago that were all about monopolies, and nothing has changed. They don’t work, they waste a lot of time & money, and they do nothing to progress society.

Do you want to live in a more advanced world, like Star Trek? Do you want humanity to advance, explore space, discover the inner working of the mind, solve the worst problems of society? That all begins with getting rid of Copyright and Patents.

So let’s just put an end to this bullcrap already.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Can we just end this crap already?

Tell that to the women that will have to pay a thousand times more for a test that used to cost pennies, because if was granted a monopoly to a pharma company.

Tell that to all the farmers that Monsanto threatened or sued.

Tell that to all app developers being threatened by patent trolls.

Tell that to buskers being evicted by everyone because collection agencies keep threatening every store owner under the sun.

Tell that to all the people who lived under the Bell Company monopoly and saw a completely different world when that company was broke up.

SlinkySlim (profile) says:

Society Royal

I’d like to thank the Royal Society for giving open access to these papers. Thank you.

Henry Oldenburg: ?…it is therefore thought fit to employ the Press, as the most proper way to gratify those, whose…delight in the advancement of Learning and profitable Discoveries, doth entitle them to the knowledge of what this Kingdom, or other parts of the World, do, from time to time, afford…?

And so it is done. Digitally, the world is your Press.

RS: “The content can be reused but we do ask that people acknowledge the Royal Society if they do so.”

To the likes of Pirate Bay everything they have should be found. There to (re)discover. Why? So more people can find them and read them and multiple copies can flourish and the information, so valuable, so inherent to our being, can never be lost but found again and again. Yes, even in 33GB bundles.

Copyright? I’m fairly comfortable believing that the Society is not into it for what some other folks might be into it for (ahem). When works of art, writings, papers, research, recordings &c reach that point of value where they begin to define us, all of us, then I’m afraid that you’re copyright, your limited monopoly, has expired. That would include Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny and pictures of Einstein too. There should be truly tasteless tee-shirts of Micky Mouse porking Tux right about now, existing without fear for the loss of blood.

Anyhoo, hat tip to Royal Society and may you choose to upload a torrent a day. All humans have the capacity to think, show them their history as recorded by you.

And do remember to acknowledge RS if you reference the works. Perhaps keep them informed of anything neat you discover along the way.

I think I forgot one of my thoughts.. oh yeah.. JSTOR? Tagging that shit, like it was theirs? JSTOR? Wha.. wha.. whatever. It is noble to enable discovery yes and I appreciate the gesture but, nope. Not yours. Ours.. or will be, eventually, all of it, even the neat and nifty secret stuff that even you can’t provide access to right now.

.. locked and loaded.


A Scientist says:

This is the way many scientists view copyright

Most scientists don’t really understand copyright when it comes to peer-reviewed work. The licensing silliness that you see with the Royal Society is them trying to fit what could be called a traditional scientific license into a modern copyright- and patent-crazed society. JSTOR added the copyright because JSTOR uses copyright to make sure they can make money. For us scientists, that legal crap is outside our field.

Their licensing line, “The content can be reused but we do ask that people acknowledge the Royal Society if they do so.” is the what you might call the standard academic license–feel free to use it, but please cite it. There’s no explicit legal license, no formal restriction or enumeration of rights. Just a polite request, unenforced by any legal entity, that people give credit to the person who wrote it and the organization that publicized and recorded it. Legal restrictions only complicate the flow of information that’s required to make science work. That’s why most scientists rely on their institutions and libraries to handle whatever silliness has to be done so that they can have access to the papers they need for their work–we just want to share our results with each other in a way that lets us get credit for what we’ve done.

In this sense, the best match might actually be the Apache software license, rather than any of the Creative Commons licenses.

D. Vader says:

That, after all, is the implicit bargain of copyright: that materials do enter the public domain once the agreed term of the government-backed monopoly has expired. Sadly, with the constant lengthening of copyright, sometimes retroactively, this part of the deal is increasingly ignored.

I have altered the deal, pray I do not alter it further

Duke (profile) says:

Copyright of the cover page and contract law

Firstly, there’s no requirement to put a copyright notice on something for it to be covered by copyright (aside from enforcing some of the moral rights) in English law. Whether or not the notice is there, if it’s in copyright, it’s protected. All a notice does is potentially lessen the protection (such as through a CC-licence).

While the papers may have been written years ago, the cover page (which has the copyright notice) may be protected by copyright, either as a literary work in its own right, or as a new typographical arrangement of an earlier work (which grants an extra 25 years of copyright protection to that arrangement).

The paper itself, unless it has been transcribed, will be out of copyright.

As for the licensing issues “permanently free to access online” would seem to grant a licence to download the works, through a browser, as part of viewing the website. This doesn’t necessarily include the right to download in other circumstances, share, or republish (and by including the cover page with the copyright notice in the pdf files, it will be a lot harder to extract the public domain stuff without infringing the copyright in the cover page).

“Papers published in Royal Society journals more than 70 years ago now permanently available to view and download for free via our searchable archive.” This only applies to the old journals. If they are out of copyright (which many of them will be), there’s nothing they can do to enforce attribution other than via contract law. But this still doesn’t seem to cover the cover pages. If it does cover the cover pages, then they *can* enforce the attribution requirement.

As for JSTOR, they can put any requirements they like in their T&Cs, as that then becomes a contract issue, rather than a copyright issue. So, even though the content is public domain, use of their service can be conditional on whatever terms they see fit, including attribution and non-commercial use only. However, that will probably only be binding on the original user; so if A visits the site and downloads stuff for his own nc-use, shares it with someone else who then uploads it commercially, without attributing, that should be fine.

But ianal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: the English language


Additional uses are allowed, including the ability to download, share, and reuse the content for any non-commercial purpose.

Demanding like the JSTOR is not though.
They don’t hold the copyrights, those works don’t have copyrights and are in fact in the public domain so why is there any reference to limits?

God (known to some of you as Ariborne Noodles) (user link) says:

erm, I copyrighted, patented and reserved all rights

11012 years before my beloved son was born (4 years before Pope Gregory says my beloved son was born)

What part of “I spoke, and it was” do you not understand? You have created NOTHING new, it was I who originated all that you are.

My utterance was your big bang. From I all proceeds.

For the sake of My Elect, I shall soon put an end to your nonsense.

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