Copyright and the Use of Images as Biodiversity Data

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Time series of taxonomic illustrations depicting Sigmoilina (Chromista: Foraminifera: Miliolida: Hauerinidae) in standard views. Sigmoilina sigmoidea, from Brady (1884) (1a, 2, lateral view; 1b, aperture view; 3 axial cross section). Modified from image available on the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS Editorial Board 2017).

I am a coauthor on a paper just published: Copyright and the Use of Images as Biodiversity Data by Willi Egloff, Donat Agosti, Puneet Kishor, David Patterson, Jeremy A. Miller.1 From the abstract:

Taxonomy is the discipline responsible for charting the world’s organismic diversity, understanding ancestor/descendant relationships, and organizing all species according to a unified taxonomic classification system. Taxonomists document the attributes (characters) of organisms, with emphasis on those can be used to distinguish species from each other. Character information is compiled in the scientific literature as text, tables, and images. The information is presented according to conventions that vary among taxonomic domains; such conventions facilitate comparison among similar species, even when descriptions are published by different authors.

This article deals with the principles and application of copyright law, database protection, and protection against unfair competition, as applied to images. We conclude that copyright does not apply to most images in taxonomic literature because they are presented in a standardized way and lack the individuality that is required to qualify as ‘copyrightable works’.

  1. Cite as Egloff W, Agosti D, Kishor P, Patterson D, Miller J (2017) Copyright and the Use of Images as Biodiversity Data. Research Ideas and Outcomes 3: e12502. 

Like anything in law, this article is an opinion of the authors, and is put forward to spark a conversation. I personally am not looking for a “this is nonsense” or “this is fantastic” (we have already received a few of both). I am hoping that as a society we may move toward a state where open is default for most scientific products, and protection is an exception granted in special cases. It is a long article with beautiful images (bonus).

In related news, Plazi (I am a member of Plazi) has extracted over 100,000 images from scientific publications and made them accessible on the Biodiversity Literature Repository (BLR) on Zenodo.

In an email correspondance, Peter-Murray Rust asked: “When you extract from a closed access publication - are the files copied to Zenodo and walled or are they not copied?” From the curation policy of BLR:

  1. Items with Open Access remain Open Access.
  2. Items with closed access remain closed. If they are published on 31.12.1999 or earlier, they are made accessible for reading. Please consult your national copyright law for conditions of reuse.

I hope people will read the paper and comment on the rights aspect of what we are proposing. I believe when common people, not lawyers but scientists and other users, start not caring about our rights in our products but start thinking about the welfare of science itself, and as a result, stop encumbering our work with restrictive licenses, all this discussion will become moot. Instead of trying to change the system, let’s change the culture so that the system becomes secondary. I can’t change the legal system, at least neither easily nor alone nor in my lifetime. But I can start with not using copyright licenses on my works now, without anyone else’s permission. This is why, several years ago I made a pledge to use only CC0 for everything I produce. Not a big thing, but if hundreds, thousands start doing the same, we'll have a movement.

Please do comment, write on your blog, talk about it, urge others to think, and urge the community to not be short-sighted but start giving a damn about the long game.