False claims of copyright and STM

Recently, I have become interested in the issue of false claims of copyright (i.e., copyfraud) in publishing. I just wrote to the publisher’s association (STM) to ask them what their perspective is on copyfraud is and whether they condone such behavior by their member associations. Read my letter here. I will update this blog when I get a response.

An example of copyright is this index page from the Lancet, published in 1823. Let’s assume copyright for this index page was actively registered and that it received protection under copyright legislation (copyright was not automatic before the 1886 Berne Convention). That would mean the duration of copyright would have to be at least 192 years for this claim to be valid! Even under the current situation, copyright does not last that long for organizations (if I am correct, it is around ~120 years).

Regretfully, it is easy for a rightsholder to legally pursue someone who violates their copyright, but when someone falsely claims to be a rightsholder the public cannot fight back in the same way. This is an inherent asymmetric power relation in copyright. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) does not provide a way to easily report potential copyfraud it seems and I would like to call on them to make this possible. Opening up a way to reliably report it at least allows everyone to get a better view on how often copyfraud might occur. Even better, form a legislation that empowers the public to fight back against copyfraud.

Copyfraud is a widespread problem that does not only occur with old works, but also with for example works by U.S. federal employees, which are uncopyrightable under United States federal law 17 U.S. Code § 105). Recent articles by the 44th President Barack Obama have been illegally copyrighted and yet all we can do is ask nicely that they remove the copyright notice.

4 thoughts on “False claims of copyright and STM

  1. Matt McKay

    Thank you for contacting us about the use of copyright by our member organisations. If copyright has been incorrectly or inadvertently claimed, we are confident the matter will be addressed in due course.

    In the more general case, STM and its members believe that copyright promotes the creation and dissemination of works and enables the development of new services and innovations. We support a free public domain and object, for instance, to “public domaine payant”, a system some countries impose in relation to public domain works. One of the chief merits of public domain is that such works may be re-used freely to create new works that are based on them, but public domain does not, of itself, promote dissemination of public domain works or ensure their continued and unaltered availability.

    If an organisation expends time, money, and other resources to make, curate and keep a work in the public domain reliably and widely available, then such organisation should be able to recover the value of the service they provide. We note, for example, that entry into museums hosting public domain works are not generally free, nor are reproductions of very well known or famous public domain works such as the Mona Lisa. Reasonable people can, and do, differ in their opinions about appropriate prices for goods and services and such differences are likely to persist. As you may be aware, for competition reasons, STM cannot comment on specific prices within the industry.

    1. Profile photo of Chris HartgerinkChris Hartgerink Post author

      Dear Matt,

      My apologies, I had not noticed the comment. Thanks for the response.

      Your response does not provide an answer to any of my questions and simply provides a public relations response that tangentially touches upon the topic of my letter. I am surprised STM takes a passive position on this matter (“we are confident the matter will be addressed in due course”) while not doing so on other copyright related issues such as Text- and Data mining (e.g., this press release).

      Moreover, you simply say that if anyone spends time and money to host content, they may recover value. I understand your logic and nowhere do I state charging money is illegal. I simply find it disappointing that organisations that (supposedly) aim to communicate information are inept at balancing commercial interests and the scholar’s need for readily available knowledge. In this way, scholar’s are alienated, while being your primary customer base. Don’t expect them (including me) to remain passive for much longer. We note that even Hindawi no longer sees eye-to-eye with the STM Association, and imagine this is just sort of thing will become more commonplace if you do not take a stronger position on important matters raised to you by members of the research community.

      However, I understand the need for a constructive position. I am willing to post all the articles that are in the public domain on Zenodo. Pro bono — because I care about the public domain. In fact, I have started doing so. Attached is a list of articles that Elsevier (I can provide you with similar lists for other publishers in due time) is falsely claiming copyright over and I have made available on Zenodo. Almost 200 years after publication, the copyright has expired. As I mentioned in my previous letter, claiming copyright over such works constitutes copyfraud.

      [Note: the list was attached to the e-mail but not to the reply on this blog]

      I would enjoy if you help me liberate the public domain and to rebuild the trust I have lost in you as an association that helps “disseminat[e] the results of research”. With respect to liberating public domain works, Sci-Hub has done a great job because no copyright infringement exists.

      Kind regards,

      Ps. I have cross-posted this on my blog as well.

      1. Matt McKay

        Dear Chris,

        Thanks for your email. I feel I should start by picking up on your highlighting of Sci-Hub. Sci-Hub freely describes itself as a pirate platform. It is simply a place for someone to go to download stolen content and then leave. It contains several million complete eBooks – eBooks which now, authors are not getting royalties for. I do not believe it is helpful to associate the dissemination of the results of research with Sci-Hub.

        To clarify on your question about public domain works, if I write something and note the copyright on it, when that copyright expires, I’m not required to find every existing copy of that original work and remove the copyright notice. A first edition of Pride and Prejudice (1813) for example, likely lists the copyright. It is in no way ‘copyfraud’ to have a copy of that book where the copyright notice has not been forcibly removed. If one wishes to re-use work in a way what would indeed infringe copyright, it is the responsibility of the re-user to determine the status of the work, not the author/copyright holder, who could be long deceased. Likewise works in the public domain can be sold by anyone. It is “ethically responsible” for a company to sell copies of ‘Pride and Prejudice’? Anyone who takes the time to make a public domain work available is allowed by law to charge a fee for the work they put into making it available.

        I hope this provides you with a satisfactory explanation.

        Best regards


        N.B. I have cross-posted this on your blog also

  2. Charles Oppenheim

    It’s OK for STM to say charging to cover costs for curation might be acceptable (though personally I find the suggestion rather unconvincing for scholarly articles, even if it is true for, say, the Mona Lisa), but that fails to address the basis of the original post – claiming copyright on something which isn’t in copyright. STM should make a clear statement that claiming copyright on something that is no longer in copyright is offensive and possibly illegal. “We are confident that the matter will be addressed in due course” is an absolutely pathetic, patronising and insulting response to a serious problem.

Leave a Reply