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May 1, 2007
Fair Use and Scientific Illustration
Readers may remember that I've pointed at PLoS, the Public Library of Science, from time to time in this blog. In an earlier life I was a scientist and a researcher, and I strongly believe that science works best when its results are freely available for wide public dissemination, use, and scrutiny. Apparently the noted science publisher John Wiley & Sons does not share this sentiment; they'd rather lock up the science and have people pay high prices to look at it -- have you seen journal subscription fees these days? Dear gods.
In this specific case, JW&S are asserting copyright in a table and graphs, not even a whole publication. This raises some questions about what constitutes fair use in scientific publication.
As reported by Dave Munger in Cognitive Daily, JW&S sent a cease-and-desist letter to a blogger compiling information about antioxidants in fruits. She had used one table and one figure, then removed them in response to the letter. They're back now in part because the blogsphere objected, but all JW&S did was grant specific permission, not admit that the category of figures is fair-use-able.
Munger delves into the issue, and comes up with the classic "it depends"; don't all questions about copyright and fair use end that way? There really don't seem to be any good guidelines on whether a figure from a journal article is a copyrightable entity in its own right (as a photograph would be) or whether it's more like an excerpt, for which there are well-known fair-use rules.
Unfortunately, his proposed solution - recreate the figure from scratch - doesn't really avoid the problem he thinks it does. A figure created in this way is pretty clearly a derivative work, since it's derived from the data and figure in the original published article. As a derivative work it's still subject to the restrictions of copyrights and the questions of fair-use exemptions still apply.
EDIT: The blogger in question, Shelley Batts, added "See the current story in The Scientist for more info on the case. http://www.the-scientist.com/news/home/53177/)
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