Museums, intellectual property, copyright

Kevin Winker ffksw at UAF.EDU
Fri Feb 15 17:49:53 CST 2002

Dear Barry et al.,

     Much of the data associated with museum specimens can be viewed as
intellectual property and therefore copyrightable. Interpretation of specimen
identity, interpretation of locality (short perhaps of digital GIS
coordinates), interpretation of sex, age, etc., how someone recorded the date
even, and the arrangement in which this information is presented, stored, or
expressed is a far cry from a simple statement of fact (given the error rates
in collections, I wish we were closer to true facts in these data). But we are
very small players in this arena and the stakes are too low for us to be
pushing the envelope. This is all being worked out in economically important
areas such as genome projects, human health research, and large databases.
Even U.S. Federal researchers have intellectual property rights that protect
their work from being instantly scrutinizable by "the public." I cited some of
the pertinent literature in a short correspondence to Nature in 1999 (Nature
401:524). The two articles that I cited there and thought very informative
were Cohen & Hahn Science 285:535-536 and Goldwater Science 282:1823. All of
these articles should be available electronically at and for free. I've (mis)filed other relevant articles but can't
put my hands on them. Don't have time to look on Science OnLine, but they
should link articles that cited these two. Nature had some good pieces also.

Kevin Winker
University of Alaska Museum
907 Yukon Drive
Fairbanks, Alaska 99775
ffksw at

Date:    Thu, 14 Feb 2002 09:32:54 -0800
From:    Barry Roth <barry_roth at YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Museum collections / intellectual property

When museums claim copyright on their collection data, what exactly do they
think they are asserting those rights about?

In my understanding, copyright pertains to a formulation or expression of
facts, not to the facts themselves.  The elementary example sometimes given
is:  the fact that my phone number is (###) ###-#### is not copyrightable; but
the telephone company can copyright its phone directory, which is a
formulation containing that information.

The fact that species X occurs at locality Y is an independently discoverable
fact and not subject to copyright.  Similarly, the existence of a lot of
specimen X from locality Y in Museum A is independently discoverable
information, although the museum may control access to that specimen.

Therefore, is it the catalogue, or perhaps the arrangement bits of data on the
server, on which a museum can claim copyright?

I would particularly like to hear from Taxacomers who as part of their
professional duties have had to deal with this type of question.  Examples of
museum policy (both written policy and its day-to-day application) would also
be welcome.


Barry Roth

ps.  Obviously, the laws of different countries my govern differently on this
issue, so there may not be one single answer.  That would be interesting, too.

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