Standing on Isaac Newton’s shoulders without a copyright licence

Cambridge Digital Library launched an online collection of Isaac Newton’s papers this week. All I saw was praise for the project and lots of it. I think that’s appropriate, it’s a good project. But what about the rights?

As far as I can see, the Library are the custodians of the papers as precious three-century-old artefacts and that’s it. Newton’s intellectual legacy, ethically and legally, belongs to everyone. You don’t have to ask or pay to adapt a Shakespeare script (say) and perform it. You can do a low-budget production in a village hall or you can make a multi-million pound movie out of it. You could combine it with a poem from Dafydd ap Gwilym, if you want to. That’s the beauty of the public domain. It belongs to nobody – and everybody.

The same freedom applies to Isaac Newton’s works – or should. But I went to Principia and clicked the download image link and a licensing notice popped up. I don’t care if it’s Creative Commons, that’s not public domain.

I’m sharing the email below because I’m not a legal expert and maybe somebody out there can help me understand this. It bothers me when institutions seemingly ignore the public domain and try to enclose it. It’s a pity that the public domain can’t muster a front as big as that of the content industries.

Dear Cambridge University Library

Congratulations on your successful launch of the Cambridge Digital Library and the digital versions of Isaac Newton’s papers.

While I am grateful and pleased that you have released Newton’s works online, I note that you appear to claim ownership of copyright in the scanned images of these works. I also note that you are attempting to apply a Creative Commons licence which appears to contravene copyright law, as would any licence applied to work in the public domain.

I quote from the terms and conditions of your website:

The University is the owner or the licensee of all intellectual property rights in the site and in the material appearing on the site. The material includes but is not limited to works such as images, artwork, text, data, files, audio/visual clips, illustrations, designs and documentation (the ‘Content’) and the collection, arrangement and assembly of the Content. Those works are protected by copyright laws and treaties around the world. All such rights are reserved.

Copyright law began with the Statute of Anne towards the end of Newton’s life. It has now been superseded by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 which states that written works (with very few exceptions) pass into the public domain 70 years from the year of the author’s death. In his case if we were to apply current copyright law the works would have passed into public domain on 1st January 1798.

I am sure you would not want to be seen to be attempting to restrict the use of works in the public domain, as if that were possible. If so please could you reword these statements on your website to clarify humanity’s common inheritance of Newton’s legacy.

Many thanks

Carl Morris

I’m waiting for a reply from the librarians.

If you were to re-use one of Newton’s papers –  say, print up a bunch of t-shirts with his writing on and sell them - I don’t think there would be enough to make a case if the Library were to dispute it. It seems they just took some scans of the pages without adding anything novel. I don’t want to be an arse and say I’m ungrateful for all the work they did in preserving the documents and digitising them. But let’s be clearer about the rights and freedoms here. Correct me if I’m wrong.

And if someone trying to own Newton’s stuff doesn’t sound bizarre enough for you have a look at the Crown’s perpetual ownership of the King James Bible.

UPDATE 22/12/2011: So, more people are talking about this…

UPDATE 6/2/2012: No reply to my email from Cambridge Digital Library as yet.

One Comment

  1. Posted 5 Ionawr 2012 at 2:57 AM | Permalink

    I’m not a copyright expert but my understanding is this: the papers are hundreds of years old and well out of copyright but Cambridge University Library scanned the papers – they own the copyright to the images.

    Do they have a right to only grant a non-commercial licence to the images? I haven’t decided, part of me thinks they have the right to ensure that other people don’t make money from the work they did – there is also a consideration of the cost of the work and continued upkeep of the collection (originals and online). But then no one else has the ability to take their own pictures to use.

    I hope they transcribe the text soon, they can’t copyright that.

    Didn’t know about the Crown copyright on the King James bible, that is something to be angry about.

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