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The term, "Public Domain" has been a recurring theme in the press these
days, and the issue (and all it touches) is rather complex. And, as this
article will illustrate, it can affect a great many in the realm of
copyright and intellectual property, which by extension, has profound
As if the topic weren't complex enough, photography shakes things up even
more because of its nature as being both an art form and a kind of
"photocopy machine." Is a particular photo of another work merely a
"copy", or is it a unique copyrightable work all its own?
That question is at the core of many disputes and misunderstandings, and
depending on which side of the fence a given court judgment may go, it can
establish precedents for how other copyright cases are judged.
Mix it all up and you get the flogosphere, where bloggers oversimplify
positions, skew facts, misrepresent opponents, and pontificate their
opinions to rally their core supporters.
Needless to say, there's a lot at stake. So, when reading articles about
the matters, it's important to understand certain basic principles.
A recent case that's made it to the mainstream press illustrates how all
this materializes: Britain's National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is
threatening to sue Wikipedia for copyright infringement for not taking
down 3,000 high-resolution photographs that Derrick Coetzee downloaded
from the NPG website, and placed on Wikipedia to serve as head shots for
important historical figures. The works of art are very old paintings,
which are in the Public Domain. But the photos of the paintings are
new, and, as the NPG claims, are copyrightable works.
The news made headlines, and the flogosphere took over. As a benign
example, there's this quote in a UK photo blog supporting the NPG:
"Owners of Public Domain images are in general under no obligation to
put them on the web, and (they) have every right to charge a fee for
supplying files, and to impose a suitable license on their use."
Another blogger added: I'm a British taxpayer and I'm delighted by all
this. Don't we, the taxpayer, own the images?
First, no one owns works that are in the Public Domain. (By definition,
the term means "not subject to copyright.") The authors' misunderstandings
appear understandabletheir statements assume that because the
paintings are in the Public Domain, so are the photos. Or because
the institution may be funded by the government, the photos are PD.
But neither assumption is true.
It'd be one thing if these blog comments were isolated. But, none of the
photo blogs I've read fully address the central question of uniqueness.
Instead, they use these similarly incorrect assumptions for a purpose: to
suggest that photographers' photos could be stolen the same way, and
therefore this event "harms photographers."
No one disputes that the paintings are in the public domain. It's
the status of the photos that's in question. And you can't tie the
two together quite so simply because there is a difference between a photo
itself and what it's a picture of. A photo is a derivative
work from the original, and it's true that it may not be distinct enough
to have its own copyright status. But that in itself is not a threat. But
it is the point of discussion. As far as copyright law is
concerned, if it's unique enough, a photo could be protected by its own
copyright status (so long as certain other conditions are met). If not,
the photo is considered "identical" to the original work, in which case,
it inherits the same copyright statuswhether that's its owner, or "the
What people should be addressing are these two questions: What
constitutes originality? and How can this affect copyright more
Let's begin with a simple example: Say you took a photo of a hilly
landscape; you own the copyright to it. Now let's say you licensed it to
someone who then used Photoshop to add a car and a waterfall into the
image. That person created a derivative work from your original
photo. Under copyright law, he owns the rights to his rendering of
the photo, and he can do whatever he wants with itprovided it's
permitted under the license terms you granted to him. (Most of the time,
these terms indicate that he can publish it for his own use, but not grant
the use of the photo to third parties.)
The pivotal point to consider here is that copyright does not transfer
from original works to derivative works, or back again. Just as he has
no right to redistribute his version work to others, you have no
rights to redistribute his version of your photo either. This, even
though you own the original photo. His photo is unique from yours and has
its own copyright protection.
Now, let's consider "Public Domain" in exactly the same scenario: If the
same guy used a photo that's in the Public Domain, he has still created a
derivative work, just like before. And, like before, he owns the
copyright to his newly created derivative work. That is, he controls
the licensing rights to it, and consequently, can prevent others from
either using it or relicensing it. If someone wanted to use his derivative
work, they'd have to license it from him. Otherwise, it's copyright
By the same token, he has no claim to the original work just
because he owns the copyright to his derivative work. That is, other
people can still use (and redistribute) the original work (not his
In short, the two are solely independentthe status of one doesn't affect
the status of the other.
Now let's put it into context of the NPG and Wikipedia case: |
Paintings are in the Public Domain.
- The photos are derivative works.
- Wikipedia used the photos.
- Q: Did Wikipedia infringe?
You'd think that they did infringe because of how I set up all
this: I suggested that the "derivative works" are unique from the
originals, and therefore, separately copyrightable works. And, that's how
misinformation gets disseminated, especially if a commentator has a
particular bias he wants his readers to believe.
However, recall that there's still a factor of originality. The
question before a court is whether the photos of the paintings are
"distinct" from the original paintings. If so, then the photos may be
copyrightablehence, not in the Public Domain. (Wikipedia
infringed.) If they are not distinct, they are considered the same
as the original works, and are therefore in the public domain.
(Wikipedia did not infringe.)
Many people think that because paintings are uniquely different art forms
than photographs, each is uniquely different. But there's also the
argument that photos can be merely "photocopies" of other works, which is
not a form of originality.
Now consider this example:
In 2007, Getty Images created high-res scans of negatives of famous public
domain photos, and then licensed those images in their stock library. When
people started using those images without licensing them, Getty sued them
for copyright infringement. Their claim is that, as part of the scanning
process, they removed dust and scratches, thereby creating derivative
works that would produce much better prints than the originals would.
Therefore, Getty's scans are unique from the originals, making them
separately copyrightable. Do you agree? Or are they the same as the
originals, causing them to inherit their Public Domain status?
Needless to say, this story got a lot of attention in the
flogosopheremeaning that most people ripped a new breathing hole into
Getty. Now we're in the Mentos-and-Diet-Coke territory.
The bias is evident in the headline itself. Here, the commentators focus
almost entirely on whether the original works are in the Public
Domain, giving little credence or attention to the fact that Getty's edits
could constitute "uniqueness." The article is also highly slanted by
falsifying Getty's claim: it leads the reader to believe that Getty is
claiming copyright to the images in the National Archives. But that's note
true. Getty is only claiming that their scans and subsequent alterations
are protectable derivative works. That is the question up for debate, and
it's a legitimate one. It's entirely irrelevant that the original photos
are Public Domain, other than to note that if the courts decide that the
scans are not original enough, then they would inherit the status of the
Public Domain works.
I'm not weighing in on how the courts would decide in such a case, though
no one has yet to challenge their claim in court. I'm just observing that
what should have been the topic of debate, wasn't. And as a consequence to
the slanted portrayal of the company and an intentional perpetuation of
misinformation, most photographers feel that Getty's actions are more than
just unethicalit could happen to them. That is, if Getty gets
away with this, and if Wikipedia gets away with that, then any
photographers' images are next: that someone could make some kind of
"frivolous photocopy" and then disseminate it without compensating the
This is nonsense, and such fears are based on false assumptions on two
levels. First, both cases here involve "Public Domain" works, not works
whose copyrights are still owned by the photographer. Second, the fallacy
that a "photocopy" is easy to justify as a unique, protectable workone
in which an infringer can use to justify copyright infringement.
As the reader should have already learned from this article, even if a
photo were deemed to be unique from the original, then it doesn't
mean that it can be re-licensed or redistributed. It only means that the
new work's restrictions are limited to those permitted by the owner of the
original: if the original is in Public Domain, there is no owner, so the
derivative work can be used for any purpose; but if it's owned by someone,
that owner must explicitly grant usage terms to the licensee that created
the derivative work. Unless you declared your own photos are in the public
domain (which is not easily done, a topic I'll address in my next blog
post), no one can just make derivative works of your photos and do what
Determining whether a derivative work is unique is not easy to
analyze, let alone decide. I dedicate almost an entire chapter to it in my
book on model
releases. In the section on Property Releases, I discuss the case
idgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp, which is probably most similar
to the NPG v. Wikipedia event, and which illustrates why the analysis is
not so cut and dry. The first paragraph on that page above summarizes the
case in a manner that initially appears (to the casual reader) that it's a
On November 13, 1998, this Court granted defendant's motion
for summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's copyright infringement claim
on the alternative grounds that the allegedly infringed workscolor
transparencies of paintings which themselves are in the public domainwere not original and therefore not permissible subjects of valid
copyright and, in any case, were not infringed. It applied United Kingdom
law in determining whether plaintiff's transparencies were copyrightable.
The Court noted, however, that it would have reached the same result under
United States law.
Yet, subsequent events (described by the paragraphs that follow), show
there is a great deal of debate on various matters that put the whole
issue into question. The details of which are not relevant to this
The simple fact that so many in a position of knowledge can disagree so
strongly is also reflective of the fact that many court decisions are
often split, even among the judges who decide these cases. The reality is
that drawing simple conclusions on such matters lead to incorrect
decisions on matters of commerce and policy. And no one does themselves
(or the industry) any good by focusing on matters unrelated to the pivotal
questions at hand.
In Part 2,
I discuss the matter of Public Domain more directly, and why photography
is the odd and unusual case, distinctly different from all other
copyrightable art forms.
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