Re: DejaNews and Copyright


Steve Summit (
Tue, 19 Aug 1997 10:22:58 -0700 (PDT)

In <v03007800b01f2dfcb8db@[]>, Wolfram wrote:
> How is this different from DejaNews slapping their copyright onto every FAQ
> that is posted to a newsgroup? I've never bothered to check, but someone
> forwarded me a copy of a segment of the r.m.r. FAQ I hold copyright to,
> and DejaNews had tacked their copyright onto it.
> Is this legal to do?

I get the impression (and I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm
wrong) that deep down, all a copyright notice really applies to
is the particular copy of the material it's attached to.
Dejanews certainly isn't trying to claim copyright for your
work; they're just asserting their rights over the copy they've
made in their archive. (Whether they have any rights over this
compilation, and whether copyright is an appropriate way to
protect them, is another question entirely.)

In particular (and this is probably obvious), a copyright notice
is *not* retroactive. If someone (call them party A) has slapped
a copyright notice on a work, and if you hold a legitimately-
obtained version of that work without a copyright notice (or with
a different copyright notice), then party A's copyright notice
does not apply to you or to the copy you hold. In particular, if
the copy you hold was created by party B, then party B probably
holds copyright, if only implicitly under the Berne Convention.
(Of course, this is especially true if *you* are party B.)

There are really several distinct questions here:

1. Does Dejanews have any right to "republish" your work at
all? (It's pretty clear that they do, since it's nearly
impossible to distinguish what they do from what any
Usenet site does as it propagates your article, and it's
clear that anyone who posts to Usenet implicitly condones
that kind of republication.)

2. If Dejanews (or any party) republishes your work, do they
have the right to apply their own copyright notices?
(Note that this question is independent of the first one;
if they have neither right, then applying their own
notice is a separate transgression.)

3. Is Dejanews's (or any party's) right to do either 1 or 2
dependent on the original author's permission? (If they
ask for and receive permission, it's clear that they can
freely do 1 or 2 or whatever they receive permission to
do. So what we're really trying to understand is what a
republisher is allowed to do without asking for or
receiving explicit permission.)

These questions are reminiscent of "compilation copyrights."
I don't know what their status is right now, but the debate over
them (and any precedents set by that debate) would certainly be
illuminating here. If party A (e.g. Dejanews) can "add value" to
a work, and apply its own copyright notice to "protect its
rights" over the value it adds, all without the original author's
permission, then this is clearly a more general case of what a
compilation copyrighter is trying to do.

But there are other precedents which probably apply, too, and
some are more mundane, less ephemeral, less cutting-edge, and
hence more clear-cut than these tricky issues of copyright in the
brave new world of electronic publishing. For example, suppose I
want to put some images on my web page. Can I scan in a Calvin &
Hobbes cartoon? Clearly not; those cartoons (and all extant
copies) are copyright by Bill Watterson and/or his syndicate,
and the copyrights are valid and aggressively asserted by the
syndicate. Can I scan in an E.H. Shepard drawing of Winnie-the-
Pooh? I don't know what the status of Milne's and Shepard's
original copyrights are, but every recent copy of these images
I've seen (e.g. on rubber stamps) says C-in-a-circle Disney.
Either Milne and Shepard are recently enough dead that their
copyrights have been renewed by their heirs (and presumably
assigned to Disney), or else Disney is asserting the same sort of
copyright on the copies it distributes (e.g. those rubber stamps)
as Dejanews is asserting. In either case, Disney is *very*
aggressive about asserting its copyrights; if I can't find a copy
of the Pooh image I want which is lacking the C-in-a-circle
Disney, then I'm out of luck, for I'm clearly in trouble (and
wrong in the eyes of the law) if I copy one of Disney's copies.
Finally, suppose I want to use some of John Tenniel's classic
illustrations for Charles Dodgson's works (Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, of course). I *know*
the original copyrights on those have long since lapsed; they're
unquestionably in the public domain. But there are many copies
about; which ones shall I use to make my scans? As in the Pooh
case, many of the copies seem to have copyright notices affixed
by jealous latter-day republishers. (In many cases, the latter-
day republisher is probably again Disney.) Those republishers
will complain (and will probably have a case against me) if I
copy their copies of what they don't deny are public domain
images. They would say I have to negotiate with them before
copying their copies, and if I don't want to do that, then it's
my problem to try to find a high-quality copyright-lapsed copy in
a library or something, or to negotiate with a museum somewhere
for permission to make a copy from one of the originals.

In practice, it seems that popular and desirable works can be
controlled (and utilized for profit) essentially in perpetuity,
regardless of what the law says about how long copyrights last or
what it means to be "public domain." Consider the Mona Lisa -- I
bet that any book you find a copy of it in (and from which you
might be thinking of making a copy) will have a copyright notice,
and if you want to make a copy of the original, you're going to
have some serious negotiating to do with the folks at the Louvre.
Museums everywhere make piles of money licensing authorized
reproductions of ancient, nominally public domain works. Bill
Gates has been *spending* piles of money securing digital
reproduction rights for the collections of many of these museums,
and he's certainly not doing it so that you and I can peek at
them via the net for free. (I'd like to hope that Bill's
licenses for the most part aren't exclusive, but I'm not too
optimistic about that, either.)

Now, I'm not saying I agree or disagree with any of this; I'm
just presenting my take on what the current legal and practical
situation seems to be. But in presenting (somewhat pessimistic)
conclusions about what a republisher like Disney or Gates is able
to do, I've wandered pretty far from the original question,
although my conclusion leads me right back to it: if you want to
be free of worry that your copies of a work will infringe
someone's (valid or invalid, moral or immoral) perceived or
asserted "rights" to that work, the thing to do is of course to
create your own work, from scratch. Then, theoretically,
*you're* in the position of the Disney or the Gates, wielding
ultimate control over the destiny of your work, only then of
course you discover that there's this practical difference, a
matter of size and influence, between you as an individual as
opposed to massive corporations like Disney or Gates (or even
Dejanews, I suppose). In any case, all my blathering about
Disney and Gates doesn't really apply to the question of what
Dejanews can or can't do with a Usenet post, since the Disneys
and Gateses of the world negotiate *very* carefully with the
original authors or current copyright holders, which is of course
exactly what Dejanews doesn't do.

Steve Summit