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.