Paul J. Heald


On his book Copy This Book! What Data Tells Us about Copyright and the Public Good

Cover Interview of December 02, 2020

A close-up

Apart from the Amazon graph depicted in the previous section, I would love a browsing reader to encounter the photograph on page 10 of the book showing workers perched on a steel beam, eating their lunch high above the Manhattan skyline. Why is it so difficult to determine the ownership (or lack thereof) of one of the most iconic photographs ever taken?

The frequent impossibility of determining the copyright status of a work is illustrated by the twisted history of the lunchtime image (which necessarily includes a consideration of Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s “Soft kitty, warm kitty” song from the “Big Bang Theory”). Copyright Office data confirms the shocking lack of public accessibility to photographic works taken in the middle of the last century.

Copy This Book! seeks to bring home the effects of endless expansion of copyright law on readers. Although each chapter illustrates this point in a different way, there is something especially compelling about the “Lunch Atop A Skyscraper” image and subsequent narrative.

Someone starting their browsing in the middle of the book, rather than the beginning, would encounter shocking examples of “copyfraud”: false claims of ownership of public domain works. What could be more enraging than a publisher claiming to own the copyright in the Declaration of Independence or the congressional 9/11 committee report? Yet, it happens all the time and constantly deters the republication of public domain works.

Hopefully, even a browsing reader will be prompted to visit Getty Images and learn the price people are charged to use public domain photographs! Of course, it might be easier to just buy the book and find out.

Finally, a quick look at the last page provides a browser with the punchline for the story, “if you simply cannot afford to pay for it and would not have bought it anyway, please copy this book!” Reading the book explains why this statement makes sense.