You Can’t Copyright the Public Domain
I sent the following email to a museum today. I’ve removed identifying information because I think that the problem is really one of copyright confusion, and I truly hope that they will change their policy.
Your museum sounds quite interesting, and it is creditable to see its commitment to sharing Canadian history online.
I’m writing to inform you of a fairly serious copyright issue. While it is true that [the museum] owns physical copies of the work in its collection, that does not confer copyright ownership. Although I have not looked at your online offerings exhaustively, the one example I looked at closely shows the Museum has licensed at least one public domain work Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada (CC BY-NC-ND 2.5).
This license could be considered liberal if the Museum actually owned the copyright in the work. Since Canadian Copyright Law places anonymous work in the public domain fifty years after publication, this work should clearly be in the public domain. Which makes the Creative Commons license you have chosen not a liberal permission, but rather an extraordinary restriction that effectively locks Canadians out of our own history. Further, the Non-Commercial No-Derivatives restriction prevents Canadian made cultural works.
Utilization of Creative Commons licenses is usually good, because they lift onerous copyright restrictions — but not when they are affixed to works in the public domain. Public domain work should more properly be labelled CC0 or assigned a Public Domain Mark.
If [The Museum] expects branding public domain work © [The Museum] will ensure accreditation, it does not. It is more likely to inspire people to not credit you, for fear of copyright infringement consequences. Case in point: the image that ultimately brought me to your site today was shared online with no accreditation at all beyond the museum’s name stamped on the side.
The only right copyright grants the Museum is the ability to sue people who copy images so designated ~ if they infringe copyright. Of course, whether a court would subsequently uphold any museum claim to copyright of public domain work remains to be seen.
Even if the museum would win a lawsuit suing Canadians for using part of our heritage ~ cultural and historic work that is in the public domain ~ even commercially ~ would hardly endear your organization to the public. Further it may well curtail future donations of historic work to the [The Museum] Collection.
Employing the Creative Commons NoDerivatives clause will prevent Canadians from using [The Museum] Collection work in celebration and sharing of our own history through the creation of our own remixes and art, and the NonCommercial restriction further prohibits the same for commercial uses. Both of these restrictions belie [The Museum’s] stated mission which suggests it “celebrates our past and present life — our history, our people, our communities” but these provisions will instead crush any attempt to use [Museum] works in any “contemporay and interactive” manner.
There is nothing wrong in selling physical copies of collection works in the public domain. If anyone wants to make commercial use of any of the photographs in the museum collection, they would likely still seek out high quality copies or access to the original work. Individuals wanting to frame prints for themselves would similarly prefer the high quality copy that the museum already sells. If I wanted to publish a history book, I would get the best quality copies available.
Copyright law has become quite complex, and so I would recommend reading Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture and Jason Mazzone’s book Copyfraud in hopes the Museum will reconsider its policy. Screening the NFB film RiP! A Remix Manifesto would be helpful too. You can also contact Creative Commons Canada directly for more information.
I’m not a lawyer, just a Canadian fiction writer with an interest in history, copyright and free culture, and you should be aware that I will be publishing a version of this email in my blog. As I am hopeful that [the Museum] wants to fulfill its stated objectives, I will first remove identifying references from this article. I do very much hope that your museum rethinks this issue that is so important to us all.
Laurel L. Russwurm