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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  1. icon
    Trails (profile), 3 Dec 2011 @ 8:19am

    Re: Re:

    Indeed, if we don't grant Newton copyright on this letter, he may stop all work on Spongebob.

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