[okfn-discuss] Can science be copyrighted?

Rufus Pollock rufus.pollock at okfn.org
Mon Nov 5 20:06:21 UTC 2007

peter murray-rust wrote:
> Hope this isn't out of scope but I came across a page on US copyright
>  law (I think) which suggested that several aspects of scientific 
> papers couldn't be copyrighted. (It didn't mention science, but 
> "procedures" and "ideas"). I have blogged this: 
> http://wwmm.ch.cam.ac.uk/blogs/murrayrust/?p=782 I would value any
> informed comment, even if it is depressing.

This is an interesting question Peter, and it's good you've raised it.
It is important here to reiterate dichotomy between expression and idea.
Very crudely (copyright lawyers such as Jordan may have something to say
here), copyright protects the expression. Thus, while a given scientific
paper may only be using english to express ideas (which are not
copyrightable) the paper itself may be thanks to its status as expression.

Thus when you title your post 'Is science copyrightable' the obvious
answer is of course not. But while no-one can copyright the fact that
water boils at 100 degrees they might be able to copyright a paper in
which that was stated -- or more specifically they might be able to
copyright a graph which they had drawn from data which showed the
boiling of water at 100 degrees. Now such a copyright would not prevent
you stating that fact in whatever way you wanted (or plotting your own
graph from the data -- even if it ended up resembling the original) but
it would prevent simply and copying and pasting the full text of the

To relate this to your blog post here is a quote with comments:

> PMR: Well, IANAL BUT the last sentence looks pretty clear to me.
> Large parts of a scientific paper are:
> * procedure
 > * principle
 > * discovery
> PMR: and the form (including illustrations) is irrelevant.

Ah but the form is important. Yes you can reproduce all of these by 
paraphrasing but you couldn't (necessarily) just copy and paste.

> This is, I assume, US only but nonetheless it seems pretty clear that
> I can:
> * reproduce a chemical synthesis/recipe (”procedure”)

Yes, though again you might have to be careful if this was several paras 
of english prose -- you would be of course be free to paraphrase or 
convert into CML or whatever

 > * reproduce a chemical graph (”discovery”)

Again you could summarize the result, or produce your own plot but not 
necessarily just copy the figure.

 > * reproduce a chemical molecule diagram (”concept”)

Yes. I'd assume so and you'd certainly be free to reproduce that diagram 
yourself by entering the formula (or whatever was needed) into your own 

> Now I’m quite happy to avoid reproducing the publishers pagination (I
> hate PDFs anyway). But can anyone disillusion me as to why I shouldn’t
> download and reproduce material from PARTS of scientific papers without
> permission. And is anyone happy to accompany me to the barricades?

Because it would count as expression and therefore be copyrighted! 
You're certainly free to reproduce those procedures, principles and 
discoveries in your own words but not necessarily in the words of others.


PS: you have to remember that most common law jurisdictions (e.g. US, 
UK, Australia, Canada) have been happy to apply very low standards of 
originality. Thus while the US has excluded the phone book from 
copyright (lack of originality) Australia hasn't. For more see the 
country sections of:


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