Thursday, October 19, 2006

Darwin Goes Online, With a Catch

In what must be assumed to be a slap in the faces of Intelligent Designers, the entire works of Charles Darwin are now available online. And searchable too. This is great news:

John van Wyhe, director of the project run by Cambridge University, said the collection is so comprehensive it will help dispel the "many misconceptions and myths" about the naturalist

He told the BBC that nothing can now come between the man and his writings.

Except for maybe copyright law. At the bottom of each scanned page of Darwin's original work is one of these:

So what exactly is being copyrighted here? We know it can't be Darwin's original work since it's in the public domain. Claiming copyright to the scanned image of the original works is sketchy because while a new edition or version of a public domain work can be copyrighted (as in its particular expression in the new version), we are dealing with just scans here. The whole point is to replicate the original as closely as possible: there is no "new" expression. Photocopying stuff doesn't give me any copyrights in the copies I've made and scanning books is no different.

This recalls BookSearch's PDF downloads that include Google watermarks on the pages of public domain books. At least the Darwin people are not trying to restrict the use of Darwin's works like Google does with its PDFs.

Perhaps the copyright notice at the bottom of each page means nothing at all, but was simply tacked on out of an abundance of caution because copyright is all in the news right now and it's better to be safe than sorry. If that's the case, how much worse off will we all be when people feel it's appropriate to slap copyright notices on everything they put online? I doubt people will trust/follow copyright notices that appear arbitrarily, so I hope the Darwin collection has a solid basis for doing this and would certainly enjoy someone telling me what that reason is. Seriously.
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