Dear Elon Musk: Please Put SpaceX Photos In The Public Domain

from the help-the-public-out dept

I’m excited about the upcoming world of privatized space flight. I think it will enable all sorts of innovations and explorations where NASA has cut back. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is obviously the big name player in the space right now, though there are plenty of others working to get in as well. However, as Parker Higgins recently noted, one unfortunate downside of a new privatized space world is that space photos like the ones SpaceX just released… are likely not in the public domain. NASA has a huge gallery of public domain imagery that has been tremendously useful. This is in contrast to the European Space Agency, which uses copyright to block access to images. Hopefully that’s not something we’re coming to in the US, because then it would be a lot more difficult to share photos like this:

That said, there are still at least some questions about whether or not the images are really covered by copyright. Even though SpaceX is working with NASA, that doesn’t matter, because government contractors have always been able to retain their copyright. It’s only works created by government employees that are automatically public domain.

But… as we’ve discussed, copyright questions can get a lot more murky up in space. A couple years ago Glenn Fleishman spent some time digging through some of these items in analyzing the copyright issues of Commander Chris Hadfield singing a David Bowie song in space. From there, we find that there have actually been a few papers written about these questions, including Space Copyright Law: The New Dimension.

That paper raises a number of issues, including questioning whether an image “taken by a robot device without any human input of selection” won’t be deserving of copyright because it lacks human authorship (remember the monkey selfie). But that may not be the case here. A human may have very much been involved in selecting the images from SpaceX, so they could very well be covered by copyright. Thus, we’re back to the situation we feared: these shots are covered by copyright.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the story is over. There is a clearer answer, which is to have SpaceX declare that it will put the images from its spacecraft into the public domain as well. After all, this is the same Elon Musk who recognizes that patents often hold back innovation, and has thus agreed to free up all of Tesla’s (and who has also admitted that SpaceX didn’t spend much effort on patents). So he already recognizes that perhaps overprotecting via intellectual property is a bad idea.

So, now he can do the same thing with respect to those photos. While it’s not a perfect solution, Musk can (and should) make use of something like the CC0 public domain declaration offered by Creative Commons to make it clear that these photos should be treated the same way that NASA’s images are: as public domain materials for everyone to use.

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Companies: spacex

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Comments on “Dear Elon Musk: Please Put SpaceX Photos In The Public Domain”

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ccpetersen (profile) says:


European Space Agency is not using copyright to block access to Rosetta images. One research institute and one scientist in particular is using a contracted promise that he and his team will have first whack at the Rosetta images before the public does to keep the OSIRIS images from the public. It is NOT ESA’s policy. You might want to have your writer dig into this more deeply to get the story straight. It is frustrating to ESA scientists who are being tarred with the brush of one team’s refusal to release images, but it is NOT as your writer states, due to copyright. It’s due to contractual promises. All the other teams ARE sharing their data and images.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: correction

so-o-o-o, they DID make a ‘contractual’ arrangement that precludes them from being released…
um, did they have a gun to their heads (in which case it would not be a valid contract), or did they not read something before they signed it (in which case they are idjits) ? ? ?
end result: ESA acceded to an arrangement inimical to the public’s interest…
um, WHY should they NOT be ‘blamed’ for what they willingly did ? ? ?
you lie down with the dogs, you wake up with fleas…
‘oh, but they’re not my fleas…’
yeah, right…

slybrarian says:

Re: Re: correction

It is not an “arrangement inimical to the public’s interest”. The images will be release publicly once the scientific team has had a chance to study them. What would even be the point of putting the satellite up if the mission team – the people who created the thing in the first place – have all their credit stolen by whoever can spit out a paper the fastest, resulting in them no longer getting the kind of grants that made the mission possible in the first place.

The fact that Mike continues to frame it this way is disappointing and, frankly, bordering on outright lying, given that it has been explained several time

M. Trovatello (user link) says:

Re: correction

I confirm what ccpetersen writes, and this blog post probably says it all:

Please take particular note of the fifth last para:

Ultimately, we hope that our partners in scientific organisations and institutions throughout Europe and the world that also hold some of the rights to images and data taken by instruments paid for with national funding and flying on ESA spacecraft will also join us in releasing works this way: we are starting discussions on that now.

With Mars Express HRSC images we already made some first progress:

W.r.t. the Rosetta mission, please keep in mind that said contracts stem from approx the early nineties, where perceptions on copyright were completely different and did (and could not) anticipate the digital revolution.

Scott Donnelly says:

SpaceX does not spend much on patents not because of openness, but because of the opposite. When your competitors potentially include foreign government agencies with a history of ignoring intellectual property law, it does not make sense to file a patent with the details of your advances. Rather, it is best to simply try to keep the details secret.

Insurgence (profile) says:

I would like to mention that technically a gray area, technically, depending on the programing, the photo taken by the robot could actually be considered to have been taken by a human. If they set the parameters for when and where that photo was taken, it would in essence be no different from a person setting a timer on their own camera. Now if a planet reached out and hit the button for it to take a photo, then that would be a different situation, but otherwise it is just a person setting a timer, then sifting through and picking the better ones.

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