More copyright and the web

I have a page on my website the finds of manuscripts at Kellis in the Dakhla Oasis in Egypt, with some photographs of pages of the books, which I found online. Today I had a kind email from Dr Colin Hope of Monash University in Australia. He asked me to remove them, as they were his copyright, and of course I have done so. No blame to him; he was polite about it, and is quite within his rights to ask this.  I would respect his wishes anyway, as the leader of the excavations. But this is a first for me, not least since I avoid copyright material like the plague.  There was a time online when images routinely wandered all over the web.

I wonder if there is a larger issue which perhaps should be considered. Most scholars are funded out of general taxation. Is it quite proper that the results should be copyright to a particular scholar, or university? Shouldn’t the copyright vest in the public? Does it benefit either the public or scholarship to prevent images of excavation finds being circulated? If so, how; if not, should we allow this to happen?

Perhaps this is another area where the law has yet to catch up with the existence of the internet and the consequent implications.

6 Responses to “More copyright and the web”


  1. Larry Swain

    Ah, the “public”….there’s a certain sense in this except that it doesn’t work. A criminal who pays his taxes is every bit as much the policeman’s boss as I am as a law abiding, tax paying citizen. If we followed your suggested model that public funding means “invested in the public”, then the criminal can tell the policeman what to do with it, as long as his taxes are paid. Or if we want to restrict ourselves just to academia, it would mean that anyone could financially benefit from my work, since it is owned by the public and a member of said public took a book I’ve written and sold it as his own.

    More particularly, a university professor in a public university is at least in part supported by public funds (but not entirely even there). However, his trip to an archaeological site and the dig receives little public funding by and large but funding from various public and private grants and investors. So if he took photographs, who owns copyright? It would get into a complex, unnecessary and ridiculous mess, and do away with the notion of intellectual property, something few of us are willing to give up (though I suspect you are).

    No, this isn’t an area where law needs to keep up with the Internet. Besides, your tax dollars, Roger, don’t support Australian universities, so if we followed your model you’d have violated the copyright of a whole nation of people who could sue you rather than just one.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. It’s curious that we seem to find ourselves on opposite sides of the fence on this, since my only wish is to prevent inappropriate copyright choking the internet.

    Now your comments this time: I’m afraid that I was unable to see the relevance of criminals directing policemen; we’re discussing how copyright should work, not how it should be enforced, surely?

    Not sure why you suppose that I oppose the notion of copyright; on the contrary. What I oppose is copyright that is inappropriate. The classic example of this is dog-in-the-manger copyright, where a claim of copyright is used by someone other than the author as a tool to prevent public access to something, and where, in fact, no money of any kind is changing hands.

    More generally the internet came into existence in an environment where everyone could do anything with anything online. That had to change as the internet grew in size; but fear of putting stuff online, because of copyright, would choke the whole thing.

    Whatever tiny sums you or I hope to make from selling stuff cannot be a good enough reason to turn the internet over to commercial publishers. Surely?

  3. Roger Pearse

    Let me clarify a little more what I think about copyright.

    If you or I create something piece of written work, we should have the right to sell this, exclusively, if we wish. This means that a law should exist allowing us to dispose of this right to another, and thereby to profit from our work.

    This is not an absolute moral right — at least, if it is, it is one that was not much honoured in the USA before WW1! –, but it is in the interest of the public since it makes it possible for authors to earn a living themselves rather than depending on a patron (the previous model) and it seems to be agreed that this produces more work and enriches all of us.

    However, the original terms of copyright were short, after which the goods lapsed into the public domain. Indeed few such works remained in print even at the end of these short terms. In the USA copyright had to be renewed explicitly after 28 years, but only 15% of works were so renewed. This means that 85% were already out of print, and that no money was reaching the author.

    Thus we have the interesting situation where copyright was restricting circulation of most of these works while the authors of them received no money.

    I would suggest that copyright terms of this kind serve the interests of no-one. I have no real issue with items remaining in copyright for life+70 years, so long as the author continues to receive royalties for that period. But I would seriously question how the interests of anyone are served by such a term, when no-one is making any money and the law merely restricts circulation.

    I don’t have a simple answer. I do see a problem.

  4. Larry Swain

    Hi Roger,

    There’s a lot in your two posts to respond to, but I regrettably do not have time. The quick response is simply that your examples do not fit the situation you describe in the post.

    I’m all for Open Access. I am not for loss of copyright by authors.

  5. Roger Pearse

    Hi Larry,

    No, this was my general view on copyright, since I thought perhaps it was being misunderstood.

    Whether academics should control the copyrights generated during work paid for by their employer is a separate issue, and, it seems to me, a question worth asking. Academics employed by multi-nationals do not control their copyright, after all.

    The question then becomes one of where the public interest is. If this copyright is used to deny access to the public (as when the copyright is sold, an edition of 200 copies produced, and the work then pretty much inaccessible for 120 years), then I really do think that the question should be asked.

    Probably the question would become, well, academic, if more such stuff were online rather than hidden in largely inaccessible (to the public) places.

    I’m sorry if that makes you nervous! I realise that you are such an academic, and naturally want to control these copyrights — so would I, in that position — but that doesn’t mean that this is how it should be.

    All the best,

    Roger Pearse

  6. Roger Pearse

    I was musing further on this, and had a few more thoughts. Of course none of this is a manifesto, but just that — thoughts.

    Academics generate at least two kinds of work. Firstly there are the research publications — journal articles, books — which they must produce in order to pass their annual evaluation. The primary motive to produce this is not money; they are produced as a requirement of the job. They would still be produced if the academic did not own the copyright.

    But there are also textbooks, exhibition catalogues and the like. Academics do produce these, which are not research material — or not mostly so. As such they don’t really contribute to the quota-driven stuff above, and so must be written with other motives. The most evident motives are ease of teaching and making money. Some textbooks do indeed make their authors a lot of money. They benefit the public by making this material available. Public-oriented websites are likewise in this area, done for public benefit not as part of research.

    Would these textbooks be produced if the scholar did not own the copyright? I have some doubts that they would. In this case, then, the academic owning copyright *does* make sense, and the community benefits.

    If loss of copyright means that works are not produced, then of course we need to ensure that copyright does exist and apply.



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