Opening knowledge -- or locking it up (when it's convenient)

The blogosphere is abuzz with reports about a new initiative by commercial scholarly publishers to discredit the open access movement.

Prism describes itself as an organization to "protect the quality of scientific research", which it hopes to do by opposing policies "that threaten to introduce undue government intervention in science and scholarly publishing." What policies are they opposed to? Why, this one, which recommends that NIH-funded research results be freely available to the public when they are published.

In short, they want to protect science by locking it up under copyright. They want to restrict access to publicly-funded research results by requiring that everyone pay a fee to see it. There are plenty of reasons why PRISM's logic falls apart (see here for a thorough bashing), but I wanted to point out just one: they're hypocritical. While their entire web site advocates strict enforcement of copyright laws, the images they've used on their front page are a violation of copyright law. Take a look at this screenshot from their front page:


Notice how the hairdo of the handsome scientist in the large photo is marred by the "Getty Images" logo? That's a digital water mark that stock photo suppliers use to keep unscrupulous publishers from "borrowing" their images. A quick search of the Getty Images web site locates the identical photo, with the identical watermark:


Clearly PRISM was too cheap, or in too much of a hurry, to bother with copyright (if you look closely at the other two photos, you'll see watermarks on them as well).

However, they're happy to make it expensive and inconvenient for taxpayers to access the research they've paid for.

(Cross-posted to

[Update: Looks like they've now replaced the watermarked images with paid versions. Apparently facing a Slashdot avalanche was enough to set them straight. But the point still holds: Dealing with copyright and DRM is expensive and inconvenient, and taxpayers who've already paid for research once shouldn't have to pay again to see the results.]

[Update2: Some commenters have suggested that rather than purchasing rights to the images, they just edited out the watermarks in Photoshop. I don't have the expertise to know if that's true, but it does look to me like the image in the upper right was not replaced. There still appears to be a portion of a watermark on the man's sleeve. {Update: looks like this probably is not true}]

[Update3: My goodness, look at those copyright notices now! They must really love copyright over there at PRISM. Did anyone mention to them that they generally don't have to include a copyright notice when they purchase a stock photo? It's part of the license.]


More like this

I don't suppose I can sue somebody for negligence resulting in impairment of my mental health. But if I could, I would surely go after the assholes at the PRISM coalition, an alleged grassroots group (such front groups for industry are often called astroturf groups) whose task in life is to lock up…
When technological or social changes start altering the business landscape in a particular industry, people involved in that business tend to respond in three general ways. The visionaries immediately see where their world is going, jump to the front edge of it and make sure that the change is as…
Even though I've been frightfully busy this week, I've been following the news about the launch of PRISM (Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine). I first saw it discussed in this post by Peter Suber, after which numerous ScienceBloggers piled on. If you have some time (and…
Yesterday, President Bush signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2007 (H.R. 2764) which, among else, mandates the repository of all NIH-funded research into PubMedCentral within at most 12 months after publication. Until now, the placement of NIH-funded research papers into publicly…

Well, I fully support burning down the pay walls, but I think you'd need to go further because this is just an egegious example of exceptionalism.

I'm not too keen on citation formats; if the purpose is to verify content, then cool. If it's to copyright the idea -- i.e. first one to write it down owns it -- then I think it's a lot like kids yelling "MOM! I called it first."

I expect this is not a popular view -- academics being all about originality and not an industrial meatgrinder, but in my future Harrison Bergeron society, it will be.

I don't think the purpose of citing sources (or demanding citation) is to copyright them -- it's to verify where the information came from.

Indeed, what you get by paying Getty Images for the photos is the right to not cite them -- you'll get the un-watermarked image.

The publish-or-perish mentality of academia that Ted criticizes is, I think, a mixed blessing. Certain disciplines have much higher rejection rates than others, so it probably is an unfair standard. On the the other hand, other measures of scholarly activity are also problematic. It might be the lesser of two evils (the second being scholarly apathy).

The demand that scholars obtain research grants is, to me, more problematic. Some types of research are more expensive to conduct than others. Just because an experiment is cheap to run doesn't mean it's more "valuable."

As with most hypocrites (and [too] many parents), it's "do as I say and not as I do".

Just to rebut one comment left by Dave Munger, using photos published on another website without the consent of the owner of the photo is a violation of copyright, even if the owner is selling those photos. Getty publishes its photos for sale to allow people to see what they are buying. The watermark is not on the photo to assure attribution if it is used elsewhere. You are not allowed to use the photo elsewhere. The watermark is used to discourage use of it elsewhere, because as we are well aware in this age of file sharing, some people have little regard for copyright. As such, by paying Getty, you do not recieve the right to use that photo without attribution. You recieve a royalty-free license to use a non-watermarked, higher quality version of the photo, which due to its licenisng, you are free to use without citation, but are not free to redistribute it. Therefore, the use of that photo by PRISM was a copyright violation. Although, in all fairness, it was likely an outsourced web designer that illicitly lifted that photo from Getty's website.


Sorry if I was unclear -- yes, of course even reproducing with the watermark is a copyright violation. My point is that copyright isn't just a way of enforcing citing sources, and in fact can be used in the opposite fashion.

It's nice to see that PRISM has a quality offer, well worth the page it is displayed on.

I wonder if they can live this down, or if they have to restart elsewhere.

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 27 Aug 2007 #permalink

You can also see what appears to be a Corbis watermark in the upper left image.

Prism is obviously a group whose reputation goes right to the top of Anals of Science.

By vanderlleun (not verified) on 27 Aug 2007 #permalink

Another Getty property appears on their In the News page.

I think this is truly high-larious -- a group all in high dudgeon about copyrights blatantly violating them on its own website. "PRISM believes strongly in the public benefits that can be realized when copyrights are protected." Except, apparently, when PRISM has to shell out for photos. I wonder if they have any torrents on their servers...

Please give me a moment to say one off topic comment.
I came here from a /. article... And have been here over an hour ago already. Slow reader? Umm, no! I am amazingly delighted to, through what seems to be [so far..still reading :) ], not only to be intellectual in topic criteria, but followed with replies to the parent in an identical delight. It is really a pleasure to arrive at a.... um, satisfying destination. It may sound corny, but it compelled me enough to want to comment about it - Something I rarely do.

Good job!

By Henry Smith (not verified) on 27 Aug 2007 #permalink

Wow, so sad. I love catching a hypocrite in the act. Copyright is an outdated business model, and the companies who refuse to acknowledge this are shackling all of us.


Has anyone contacted Getty and let them know about these copyright violations?

By Joshua Zelinsky (not verified) on 27 Aug 2007 #permalink

Forget about who plays for the the research for a moment:
Scientists do the research, fellow scientists do the selection, fellow scientists do the editing, the scientists who submitted the paper _pay per page to have it published_...

The publisher makes all the money and charge _scientists_ for access to it, both in print and online....

Granted usually research institutions buy expensive subscriptions to allow their researchers to, well, research, but where do you think that money comes from?

They appear to have purchased the image now or have photoshopped it to remove the watermark.

Just yesterday I wrote a furious email on their contact page (be sure to unclick the "count me in" (or similar) button!) expressing my outrage at their intellectual dishonesty. They are purporting to speak for me and I find it offensive. PLEASE don't just blog here, go to the site and let them know.

Wow, so sad. I love catching a hypocrite in the act. Copyright is an outdated business model, and the companies who refuse to acknowledge this are shackling all of us.

Not sure I entirely agree, but I'd like to hear what you have to say (although, I should note, this is somewhat tangential to the immediate issue here). What would you propose as a business model to replace the notion of copyright in a general sense?

By Brain Hertz (not verified) on 27 Aug 2007 #permalink

It's not the basic idea of copyright that's outdated. The real problem is that recent legislation (DMCA, obscene copyright lengths, etc.) has broken the copyright regime. The original idea of copyright was to give the author of a work a temporary (as in: a couple of decades) monopoly on distributing his/her works (long enough to make a reasonable profit off of it), after which it would fall into the public domain (in the probable life of the author) and be available for anybody to use. -- That was also the purpose of the library of congress: to make sure that there would be at least one copy of the work available to the public when it finally fell into the public domain.

Now, however, we have copyright terms that are likely to outlive the grandchildren of the original author, and the DMCA which makes fair use and archival a technical (if not legal) hell for people...

They have payed for the images - or they may just have removed the watermarks. Anyway, they were clearly 'In the News' on this one but it's not in that section.
Take what you want, deny the obvious: the Ministry of Truth seems to spell 'Prism'.

By ed dekker (not verified) on 27 Aug 2007 #permalink

Looks like an easy photoshop job to me.

They edited it in Photoshop!!!
Open the image in a hex editor, will see it has been altered by
Adobe Photoshop 7.0 on 2007:08:27 22:06:26.

I just opened it on Notepad++ this info appears at byte nº 145...

That really sucks!

Does anyone know for a fact that they had not paid for those images? Maybe they mocked up the web page with images from the Getty web site, then paid for them but didn't get around to putting the clean images in?

By Phil Hibbs (not verified) on 28 Aug 2007 #permalink

I opened the photo with Kate, and saw the same Adobe info as that which 'dkn' posted.


By dkn was right (not verified) on 28 Aug 2007 #permalink

It's a fair guess that they didn't pay for them and forget to put them in, because that's a fix that can be done in about 1/100th the amount of time it would take to Photoshop one of the images. At least to do a halfway decent job on the image.

On the other hand I'd also have to say that given their view of the world it's unlikely they'd pay for anything they could use for free, especially if they can make money or promote themselves using it. It's kind of hard to show online that you represent any community without imagery of the said community, and unless you've got actual scientists working for you willing to be part of a photo shoot your only option is a stock photo (hence promoting themselves, trying to look like they have real scientists behind them).

In all this reminds me of net neutrality and the mafia, you pay for the net connection and if you're a business you pay extra to make sure your packets make it out "safe", only here it's the tax payers that fund the research then pay again to see the results.


How do you know what portion of the picture was photoshopped? Didn't they have to use photoshop to add the drop-shadow? Or are you getting more information from the file than that?

Not to defend them, but the info you see from the hex editor doesn't prove anything. The drop shadows you see are part of the image on the PRISM website, which means they edited the image to add the drop shadow.

You're right, I missed that one.
I guess I was to anxious to bring them down :)

It seems Congress is in the RIAA's back pocket to continue to extend copyright durations. Seventy years now I believe.

It seems to me they should be no longer than a patent, which is still 17 years or thereabouts. No reason copyright should be any longer.

Something else suspicious about the photo in the upper right: look carefully at the guy's hair. Looks like there are remnants of the word 'RIGHT' (copyright? all rights reserved?) there.

Looking at all three images really closely (watermarked version from Getty, unwatermarked version from Getty, and unwatermarked version on Prism's website), it looks like the watermark was not photoshopped out. This incident probably occurred as Nick theorized, "it was likely an outsourced web designer that illicitly lifted that photo from Getty's website." After this story broke out they were probably notified of the copyright problem, and they quickly purchased the images to avoid further embarrassment.

Getty has been known to send out "firm sounding" letters along with 4 to 5-digit bills to companies and individuals using their images without proper licensing. A simple tip off to Getty would be enough to "fix" this situation.

Serves them right. They are people who criticize others for violating copyrights, it only seems logical that they themselves should live on the straight and narrow and show the public that they respect copyright as well by licensing images and giving proper credit where credit is due for their web page.

By Steve Savage (not verified) on 28 Aug 2007 #permalink

why PRISM's logic falls apart (see here for a thorough bashing), but I wanted to point out just one: they're hypocritical.

Being hypocritical does not counter their argument. That's essentially an ad hominem attack.

By Nathan Parker (not verified) on 28 Aug 2007 #permalink

Yes, Nathan, you're right, but it's nonetheless very telling that SPECTRE, I mean, PRISM, while claiming to be the guardian of intellectual property, would show such ignorance in slapping together their shop window.

I also believe that this hypocrisy is an illustration of why their arguments are wrong. If you're doing what you believe is important work, then copyright restrictions on the resources you need to do your work are going to slow you down and cost you money.

Far from impairing research as they claim, open access will speed it up and make it less expensive -- as their own efforts to launch a website illustrate.

RE: "Although, in all fairness, it was likely an outsourced web designer that illicitly lifted that photo from Getty's website."

That's no excuse. I am a graphic/web designer, and in my 10 years of doing my job for various firms and clients, never once has anything been published without being signed off and approved by the client.

Their argument about copyright is specious. The current practice is that publishers insists that authors relinquish their copyright to the publisher. Journal publishers have the upper hand and they simply want to preserve the status quo. The open access movement rightly endorses the idea that copyright remain with the original author, who is then free to deposit the article in a public database.

For those who aren't up on their computer jargon, what mdm and chocolim are saying is that PRISM is using open-source software to condemn open-access publishing.

It's like driving a Hummer to an anti-global-warming rally.

Your blanket statement that you don't have to show a copyright notice becuase it's in the license is incorrect, especially for Getty. Getty (for which I spend up to $100,000 every once in a while to license photos) requires a photographer/Getty Images credit under the photo normally. Of course it depends on which division of Getty you're talking about. But even their microstock site iStockphoto requires a credit. Many agencies require a ©2007 owner style copyright.

Photo credits is a thorny path, and good editors/designers pay attention to their use very carefully if they care about following specific llcense requirements.

I find it funny that the advancement of the human race must be paid for not once, twice, a third, fourth or fifth time, but as many times as one can squeeze out of us.

While I do not condemn someone for trying to make a buck, I do believe that there is a point when companies go to far.

I say information is free, its how we advance. Unless its going to give some crazy the ability to end life on this planet, we should be entitled to it. Especially if we pay for it.

By Andrew Funk (not verified) on 29 Aug 2007 #permalink

In the age of electronic publishing, the only useful functions of the commercial publisher- printing and distribution- are obsolete. Everything else- screening submissions, refereeing, editing- has always been done by scientists, usually unpaid. Scientists should stop bitching and just organize to put the profiteers out of business. Very modest page charges would suffice to support the needed infrastructure. There are enough examples now of open-access electronic journals to provide proof of concept. The only remaining step is to eliminate the stranglehold of the traditional publishers by boycotting them and refusing to accept their journals as arbiters of prestige.

By Steve LaBonne (not verified) on 29 Dec 2007 #permalink