Schnappschüsse und das Urheberrecht (Snapshots and copyright law)

The Thursday November 29, 2018 (doi) issue of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung includes a “Gastkommentar” by me (Donat Agosti) arguing that the proposed insertion of an article protecting any kind of photographs of three dimensional objects in the revised copyright law of Switzerland is misguided (Art. 2 al.).

In the sciences, illustrations, including photographs, play a crucial role. They are one among many types of research data, and are used to visually document and compare results. Although in the current debate about access to research data in Switzerland and abroad the main focus is on open access to research articles, the movement is broadening to include open data and open science.

Little thought is given to the fact that scientific articles are often based on blocks of texts or images that are itself data that could be properly cited and reused in further analyses. One of these data types are scientific photographs. These images are taken in a systematic and therefore standardized way, and with the goal to contribute to a growing corpus of knowledge in their respective scientific domain. Not only are scientific images (and data) meant to be reused, their principal value (overwhelmingly more than their limited commercial value) is in their reusability. The internet and new developments in natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) provide the ability to leverage their full potential.

For example, the description of the world’s species includes not only tens of millions of scientific publications but also an even greater number of illustrations, of which, photographs play today a game changing role. With today’s new technical capabilities, the estimated billions of specimens in our natural history collections can be made accessible. Images document observations of a defined specimen in the field. All these images can be included in scientific publications that verify their identification and put them into context. This is one reason, why, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) decided to fund the digitization of the specimens of European natural history museums (DiSSCo). At the same time, images can be the basis of an index to scientific publications, as the Biodiversity Literature Repository, a collaboration between Plazi, Zenodo/CERN and Pensoft, illustrates.

This example is just one of many ongoing projects that are mining scientific publications. Illustrations and visualizations play an important role in most scientific fields, but still are an underutilized asset for scientific discovery.

The proposed blanket protection of photographs will be a huge impediment to the scientific endeavour, and possibly stifle a fledgling movement to open up science, nota bene paid by tax payers money and requested by the Swiss Science Foundation. The protection of scientific, non artistic photographs should thus not be inserted into the Swiss copyright law.